June 11, 2013

Google neuters Google Gaydar

Most of the Orwellian theorizing we've heard over the last week about the power of the Big Data companies misses the point that they can surreptitiously exert modest degrees of influence in all sorts of nearly subliminal ways. 

For example, for several years, as you type in searches to Google, it offers auto-complete prompts of its best guess of what you are searching for. This might seem like a ridiculous trivial way in which to attempt to manipulate the public mind, and yet Google has a history of rigging prompts. For quite some time in 2010, for example, Pat Buchanan's name would simply not be prompted by Google. Was this an effort to ever so slightly stifle Buchanan's influence? Or did it just represent a vindictive desire to make Pat Buchanan fans type out all 12 characters? 

Nobody outside of Google seems to know. Few seem very interested in asking. After all, journalists reason, Pat Buchanan deserves whatever he gets coming. And Google is good. We know this because their motto is the reassuring "Don't be evil." That proves they are on the side of the Good, which is us.

And, deep down, there's the worry that Google is a lot better at keeping an eye on you than you are on them, so let's not get into a power struggle with a vastly rich near-monopoly with who knows what capabilities.

Now, there's a new example of Google rigging prompts. Last September, I published a column in Taki's Magazine called "Google Gaydar" demonstrating my new quantitative methodology for measuring what Washington Monthly editor Charles Peter dubbed "the Undernews." Just go to Google.com and type in a celebrity's name, then see how far down in the prompts it takes for "gay" to show up. If it's not one of the first ten, add a "g" and see how many prompts it then takes.

For example, Sir John Gielgud scored a 100 on Google Gaydar (i.e., "John Gielgud gay" was the first prompt, suggesting it was the number one search item about the great actor) and Walter Matthau a zero.

This opened up a new method for the social sciences to quantitatively study rumors, hunches, stereotypes, misinformation and the like.

But, since my article's publication, Google has methodically abolished most of this capability. If you search on the late John Gielgud (1904-2000) now, Google will absolutely not offer the prompt "John Gielgud gay." Only until you type in "John Gielgud ga" does it return "was John Gielgud gay," which appears to be a rare search phrase that slipped by Google unanticipated. In contrast, "John Gielgud h" will bring up "John Gielgud homosexual," but you aren't supposed to use "homosexual" anymore, so few do.

Now, I can certainly understand the viewpoint that the public's interest in the sexual orientation of the greatest Hamlet of the interwar stage is vulgar. But Google has hardly made it a policy to combat public vulgarity. And it's hardly an invasion of the privacy of this high culture figure, now dead for 13 years, whose personal traits are of historical interest.

Google has put a fair amount of effort into their recent campaign to neuter Google Gaydar, as can be seen from the fact that Google Gaydar is not broken for out-of-the-closet gay actors, such as Neil Patrick Harris and Zachary Quinto, both of whom still score 100 on my system. In other words, Google looked up out actors and didn't turn off Google Gaydar for them, or vice-versa.

Now, Google is a private company that has invested a lot of money into achieving something approaching a monopoly. They have, as far as I know, the legal right to manipulate their offerings as they wish.

I just think that the press should pay more attention to these subtle ways that Google manipulates us. Instead, the more evidence of Google's power, the more people seem to be afraid of Google's power, and thus conclude that they best shut up about Google's power.


carol said...

Gee, Google fills Pat Buchanan for me after "Bu." What am I doing wrong?

Rob said...

If I remember rightly, at the time I read the Takimag article, typing in "steve sailer g" brought up "steve sailer gay marriage" first on the list. Now Steve Sailer has been cleansed of all possible associations with gayness. Even typing in "steve sailer ga" only brings up "baby gap", "bill gates" and "hunger games".

Steve Sailer said...

Apparently, I've never written about gay marriage.

Icepick said...

I switched to Bing because the Bing Gaydar still worked. Haven't tried it in a while though....

Son of Brock Landers said...

They seemed to do it for my favorite targets, but I wouldn't put it beyond the realm of possible that Google recently did this so that Cory Booker's step onto the national stage doesn't have people getting "cory booker gay" the moment they type "cory".

I just tried it on Bing. Bing changed too.

Steve Sailer said...

The other rumor I heard about Booker is that the gay rumors he prompted with his claim that he disappears in the middle of the night to get pedicures are misdirection to cover up his spending nights with his white girlfriend in Brooklyn. It sounds like a 21st Century Oscar Wilde play about an ambitious black politician pretending to be gay because he's in love with a white girl.

Sluggo said...

What a coincidence. I was just trying use Google gaydar to out Vin Diesel and I thought it was odd that it wasn't prompting gay. Yet there were literally tens of thousands of articles questioning his sexuality.

If Google thinks there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, then they shouldn't be trying to prevent others from finding out that a person is most likely queer.

Anonymous said...

"gay" is the top entry for John Travolta...

Maybe Google knows that one's too obvious to cover up?

Marlowe said...

Librarians wielded similar power for generations by mis-shelving works and tearing up the index cards or by ensuring that the book remained permanently on loan by cycling it around a small circle of supporters.

Anonymous said...

Google is being very gay. I mean it in the sense of asserting power pointlessly and arbitrarily, to stamp the boot on the face as much as to serve a political point. Whether this action is ordered by Brin/Page or some gay underlord, I don't know.

I find it interesting to see the battle between the irreverent use of the adjective "gay" and the homosexual/PC lobby has taken up 38 pages and counting. Personally, I love that use of the word. To me, it brings connotations of the sort of big musical and dance productions that go unappreciated by everyone but the homosexual community. And if you were forced to be involved in something like that as a straight man, well, it would be gay.

PC? It's gay. Diversity training? Gay. Inability to deport criminal foreigners? Very gay. Gay gay gay gay gay.

Anonymous said...

try using "is " or "Was celebrity" and you can gaydar to your hearts content

Steve Sailer said...

"try using "is " or "Was celebrity" and you can gaydar to your hearts content"

Not for John Gielgud.

And the more preconditions required in the prompt, the smaller the sample size, so the less reliable the Google Gaydar score for the purpose of social science.

I realize that it's widely assumed that everything I do is part of some giant nefarious conspiracy motivated by deep malice toward Sir John Gielgud, but I really am one of the few who likes social science for the sake of social science.

I invented Google Gaydar because quantifying an interesting area of human behavior could prove valuable to future researchers. But Google has now taken pains to prevent research.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Yeah, the middle of the night pedi story was because someone tried to reach him and couldnt, and the media demanded something in return. I trust my NJ Dem source who says Booker will be married by '16 and seeking an executive office or he'll stick in the Senate, come out and become the gay lion of the senate. Listen to his voice. He even has gay voice.


Booker will most likely hate the Senate as a junior senator especially if Dems become the minority soon. He may go back to NJ for the Governoship with an eye on '20 or '24. He's the perfect puppet for the modern left, no accomplishments but he has a diversity check mark and works with Wall St. Booker's a black man (with blue eyes) with a Yale law degree and well to do. He couldn't find one black woman who could meet his standards and still satisfy black voters?

Is he the whitest looking black guy in America?

Rob said...

“I’m a Verizon customer. I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government".

Hey, maybe we're all just too hung up on finding gays everywhere.

Mr Lomez said...

I worked for Google in the mid aughts, specifically as the human element in the search engine algo. There was a rather large army of us working in teams with programmers and various IT specialists, sifting through tens of thousands of common search phrases, and then analyzing and tweaking the results according to what we thought SHOULD be the results. The majority of the work was looking at porn and spam sites that used clever design features to trick the automated web crawler into thinking they were something they weren't. Once or twice a day, we'd debate an interesting puzzle about how to interpret some ambiguous search term, but the majority of the work was exceedingly dull.

In any case, I have two things to add here. 1) During my time (through 2007) our work was as apolitical and amoral as humanly possible. That's not to say there weren't people higher up with their thumbs on the scale, but there was no coordinated effort to preference certain types of search results/terms over others. (So, for instance, if thousands of searches kept coming in for "Dennis Mangan" and the users consistently clicked through to the second or third page of results before clicking an entry, that would've crossed our radar, and we would've fixed it -- eventually.)

2) As far as I can tell, Google's Gaydar is alive and well. For instance, type in John Tra and the autocomplete is "John Travolta gay." That said, the autocomplete is far more regulated than the search engine results.

From what I can tell, the most likely explanation for Google's skewed results is not the heavy-hand of a few ill-intentioned Google higher-ups,* but that the internet in general, like the mainstream media in general, has certain biases that the Google search engine merely reflects.

*If ill-intentioned execs were pulling the strings, they'd have to rely on the engineers to pull it off. Those engineers tend to be free-thinking, not-to-be-fucked-with types of dudes, for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

google Google Gaydar.....

- snaptoad

mark said...

Is Google really a private company?

Anonymous said...

Google owns blogspot. Time to move?

Anonymous said...


JD said...

I find it telling that the "gay" prompt has been buried but the "racist" prompt is still widely employed.

Anonymous said...

Here is a relevant link:


Gilbert P.

Semi-employed White Guy said...

"Lindsey Graham gay" doesn't come up either, but instead "Lindsey Graham gay marriage" does. Interestingly, the first entry listed when you actually search for the latter is a blog post that says Lindsey is a poofter!

The more appropos "Lindsey Graham traitor" also does not come up on the list, but still yields 81,000 hits when actually searched.

Anonymous said...

Whether it's a corporate decision or a solo effort it goes against google's PR image so they'll likely change it if people notice.

Anonymous said...

"...the more evidence of Google's power, the more people seem to be afraid of Google's power, and thus conclude that they best shut up about Google's power."

Sounds like the Southern Poverty Law Center & Cayman Island Holding Co.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering about Facebook bias. Has anyone posted anything against the amnesty bill on Facebook and noticed it hasn't received much response relative to your usual status updates? I posted one yesterday and it just seemed to fall into the void.

Cail Corishev said...

From what I can tell, the most likely explanation for Google's skewed results is not the heavy-hand of a few ill-intentioned Google higher-ups,* but that the internet in general, like the mainstream media in general, has certain biases that the Google search engine merely reflects.

That doesn't account for what Steve's talking about. If John Geilgud used to get 100 on Google Gaydar, that means lots and lots of people were searching for "John Geilgud gay" and the autocomplete reflected that. For his name to suddenly drop to 0, we're supposed to believe people just stopped ever searching for that? "John Geilgud grand inquisitor" is a more common search now? Please.

It's obvious that they've added a couple lines of code or a database entry that drastically lowers the chance of "gay" coming up in autocompletes. The word isn't banned, since it still comes up in some like John Travolta, as you said. So it's probably more of a scoring thing, where "gay" gets a -1000 score compared to other words, but "John Travolta gay" gets a 10,000, so it still comes up.

Just for fun, to get away from the 'gay' question, I tried to get it to give me "Barack Obama Muslim". I got all the way to "Musl" before it cooperated. I'm supposed to believe that more people are interested in Obama's "music taste" than his religion. Again, please.

Whiskey said...

Steve, Google's power is less than you think. Their money-making is from search-related ads. And THAT is under pressure globally as most countries think, "hey, maybe we should not be helping the NSA spy on us and our government."

Hence the push out in China, where Google basically does not exist, and likely the same stuff in places like Indonesia (poor but massive users of the internet, at 34% penetration), Japan, South Korea (the most wired nation) not to mention France, Germany, Russia, etc.

Google has a big advantage here, but globally, not so much.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure this is not an example of google being powerful, but google being weak. They're getting threats from people who don't like the auto-complete terms for their name, so now they've tweaked the auto complete system to not offer suggestions that could get them sued.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Ian McKellen also lost "gay" and so did some other folks, but it works for NPH, Jim Parsons, and others, so I suspect more some tweak to improve search results (which google does fairly often for bigtime search targets like these folks) rather than anything sinister. Pat Buchanan isn't costing google a dime; being bad at desired gossip isn't smart, and we're not dumb.

24AheadDotCom said...

I've been warning about Google for years, mostly involving Youtube and secondarily involving their promotion of a key disinfo tool, WP. I've been urging people not to link to WP for years, and I created a Youtube playing site in part as a way to link to videos without giving Youtube yet another link. All of it was Quixotic to the max.

I'm still incredibly happy to see Digg fail, and hopefully Reddit will join them soon. People really need to watch out for gatekeepers who are able to keep out info they don't want people to see.

If you link to Google, WP, Youtube, etc. go through and at the least put nofollow on those links. Instead of doing that I put spaces around the dot so I won't help them.

The only site that seems OK - **so far** - is Twitter. They still have the means to delete things from most searches so that's a possible issue. But, they're - now at least - more of just an infrastructure company than something that tries to put their finger on the scale.

Mr Lomez said...

Cail Corivesh,

You're operating on the assumption that Google autocomplete is based on the most popular search terms. It's not. Or I should say, not entirely, perhaps not even primarily.

It's a combination of 1) what specific terms are searched for and 2) the quality and quantity of results those searches will return. The latter criteria seems to have been weighted more and more heavily in recent iterations of the algo.

So, yes, I'm sure a lot of people search for "Barack Obama muslim" but the results for that search aren't very compelling--i.e. not highly trafficked or linked-to pages. Thus, the search term is buried under a lot of less likely search terms but that nonetheless offer more relevant results.

Note that when you type in "Barack Obama mu" the second result is "Barrack Obama must die." That result coming before "Barack Obama muslim," I think, speaks for itself.

Finally, on closer inspection, the gaydar thing does seem to be a bit wonky. Certain names still show up, other obvious ones like Kevin Spacey don't. I don't have a good explanation in Google's defense but that doesn't mean there isn't one.

If anything, rather than this being an effect of Google purposefully steering the cultural conversation away from sexuality (what would they have to gain from that?), this might be a case of certain high-profile individuals asking/threatening Google to remove "libelous" info and Google complying.

eah said...

Was this an effort to ever so slightly stifle Buchanan's influence?

Given the omnipresence of Googlesearch, I would not say there was anything 'slight' about it. But if so it was overkill. Buchanan had then, and has now, effectively zero influence. The media has long seen to that; no help from Google was needed. All of which is a real shame, because he's an intelligent guy with interesting, relevant, albeit un-PC, things to say.

Anonymous said...

Steve, time foe some more Pat Buchanan content so Whiskey can embarrass himself by deliberately misspelling his name again.

Cail Corishev said...

It's a combination of 1) what specific terms are searched for and 2) the quality and quantity of results those searches will return. The latter criteria seems to have been weighted more and more heavily in recent iterations of the algo.

Yes, but that just kicks the can down the road, because I don't buy that pages matching "John Gielgud grand inquisitor" have a better aggregate PR than pages matching "John Gielgud gay," any more than I believe it's a more common search. Ditto on "Barack Obama must die" or "Barack Obama music taste" versus "Barack Obama Muslim."

"Barack Obama Muslim" returns 71 million hits, starting with some high-value pages like Wikipedia. "Barack Obama must die" (for which search I've probably been put on a list now) returns 4.6 million hits, starting with some guy's YouTube video and followed by a bunch of sites I've never heard of. "Barack Obama music taste" returns a surprising (to me) 20 million results, but the top ones don't have the quality of the "Muslim" results.

I understand that it's a complicated algorithm, as you said, and results will change over time as they tweak it to try to improve it. But it's clear, as you also said, that some very obvious searches that match a lot of high-value pages are being suppressed in the autocomplete in some way.

Google is a private business, so if they want to do that, that's their business. I'm more interested in why they're doing it: how many people in government or media can call up and ask to have something removed? How much of this comes down to individual techs coming across a search and thinking, "Nah, that's really not something people should care about," and docking it? It's an interesting thing to follow.

riches said...

What—Google "attempt to manipulate the public mind"?

You think sending a black guy (as its chief legal officer) to defend it on PBS' News Hour was such an attempt? (These blacks are really smart, doncha know.)

This sterling example then distinguished himself by saying "surveilleeance."

Anonymous said...

Steve, Google's power is less than you think.
Whiskey predictably flying cover for his Jewish friends again.
I dunno why anybody uses Google anyway, I've permanently switched to ixquick, especially after the NSA-scandal.