Google Ads May Be Racist, Study Finds

Dennis Faas's picture

A Harvard professor says the ads Google delivers on Internet web pages encourage racial stereotyping. But she adds that this could be related to social prejudices and may not be due to racism on the part of Google.

Latanya Sweeney has investigated racism extensively. Her previous findings suggested that people with 'black' names were less likely to get a job interview than those with 'white' names, even when submitting an identical resume.

More recently Sweeney examined the Google advertisements appearing alongside the company's search results. She also investigated Reuters' own search tool, which carries ads provided by Google.

Google Ads Raise Past Arrest Question

Sweeney was most interested in a service called 'Instant Checkmate,' which claims to offer criminal background checks. Some of these advertisements implied that the person mentioned in the search term had been arrested.

For example, searching for "John Doe" could produce an ad with the title "John Doe, Arrested?" and then a link to the site to carry out a background check.

(It's important to note that Instant Checkmate can't actually tell if somebody has a criminal record at this stage, as it requires more details about the person to run the check.)

Sweeney gathered together a list of 'black' and 'white' names and then carried out Google image searches to double check that each name was far more common among people of a particular skin color. (Source:

She then searched both Google and Reuters using these names. Altogether she found that 29 per cent of all ads generated by a search were from Instant Checkmate, and that these ads were most likely to be in the top position.

"Black" Names More Likely to Prompt Insinuation

According to Sweeney, among Instant Checkmate ads on Reuters, 60 per cent of those with a 'black' name mentioned "arrested" compared with 48 per cent of those with a 'white' name.

Among the firm's ads on Google, the figures were 92 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively. Sweeney says that, statistically, there is less than a one per cent probability these disparities are down to chance. (Source:

Sweeney notes there's no way to tell if Google or Instant Checkmate are intentionally rigging results. She suggests it could be related to the way Google tweaks search results based on the actual links users click.

UPDATE: In a recent email to Infopackets, a representative for Instant Checkmate had this to say:

"As a point of fact, Instant Checkmate would like to state unequivocally that it has never engaged in racial profiling in Google AdWords. We have absolutely no technology in place to even connect a name with a race and have never made any attempt to do so. The very idea is contrary to our company's most deeply held principles and values."

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