Metro Weekly

Google changes its “lesbian” search algorithm to reduce porn results

French users will now see more information and news articles, rather than sexualized content

Google has reportedly altered its algorithm for the search term “lesbian” in a bid to show less pornography.

Unlike searching for terms such as “gay” or “trans,” which produced Wikipedia articles, news stories, and LGBTQ blogs, French users who searched for “lesbian” would be shown sexualized content.

That’s according to Twitter account #SEOlesbienne and French website Numerama, both of which began investigating and reporting on the practice.

Numerama also found that Google’s special Pride Month banner, intended to celebrate LGBTQ people, would show for various LGBTQ terms including “gay,” “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” and “queer,” but not for “lesbian.”

Searching for “lesbienne” — lesbian in French — would initially show the banner, as well as a number of pornography results. Then, near the end of June, the banner stopped appearing altogether when searching for “lesbienne.”

The tech site noted that the same wasn’t true for English language searches for “lesbian” on Google.com, which returned informational and news content, like other LGBTQ searches.

Numerama asked Google’s Pandu Nayak, VP of search engine quality, about the issues with searching for lesbian during Nayak’s visit to the country in June.

“I find that these results are terrible, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “We are aware that there are problems like this, in many languages and different searches. We have developed algorithms to improve this research, one after the other.”

Nayak referenced “girl” and “teen,” searches for which used to be exploited by pornography companies to show their content, but which now default to more safe-for-work results.

“We have taken measures in cases where, when there is a reason for the word to be interpreted in a non-pornographic way, that interpretation is put forward,” Nayak said, noting that such structural changes “take time.”

But it seems those changes didn’t take too long. Both #SEOlesbienne and Numerama reported on July 18th that Google had finally changed its algorithm, and searching for “lesbienne” produced results similar to those offered by other LGBTQ search terms.

“WE WON,” SEO_lesbienne proudly declared in a tweet, noting that “lesbienne” now produced “non-pornographic content.”

Google has yet to comment on or confirm the changes.

Activists have noted that the sexualization of lesbian women is a factor in many homophobic experiences — most recently exemplified by the brutal attack on a lesbian couple in London.

In June, two women were attacked on a night bus by a group of young men after refusing to kiss for them.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May called it a “sickening attack” and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan branded it “disgusting” and “misogynistic.”

Laura Russell, director of campaigns, policy and research at British LGBTQ organization Stonewall, said the attack was an “upsetting reminder of how much we still have to do for LGBT equality.”

“This wasn’t just a homophobic attack ” it had misogyny thrown in for good measure,” Russell said in a statement. “It’s tempting to think that in 2019, lesbians and bi women are safe from attacks like these, and indeed we all should be. But sadly, this isn’t the reality.”

Read more:

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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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