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Searching the web for the word “lesbian” is like walking through a minefield. Type “lesbian”, press enter, and you’re very likely to be flooded with porn. Add a word like “medical services” or “events”, and you get information about lesbian-friendly doctors and events. Mistype “gyno” (for example, “gyon”), or add ambiguous search terms like “lesbian sex”, and you’re brought back into the noise of lesbian-related porn.
Having to sift through porn while searching for lesbian-related information creates an unsatisfying, embarrassing, if not offensive search experience. It also conveys the wrong impression that, by default, lesbian content is pornographic. We can easily understand why this is pointed out by the LGBTQ+ community as a visibility issue.
Pride Month seemed like a good time for Algolia to look at this issue through the lens of search technology, to shed some light on what’s going on here and how it can be addressed.
Algolia provides site search for individual sites. Site search relies on structuring content, or at least formatting the content in a knowing way, as opposed to web search, where content is largely unstructured and unpredictable. By formatting and structuring data, Algolia gives customers control over filtering, ranking, and selecting content based on meaning, which allows separating adult content from other content. This is more difficult for Google. To understand why, let’s compare what we do and what Google does, and see what steps to take to address the problem.
To better structure your data, you need to know your data. When you know your data, you can name and classify it, and place each item in a specific context – medical, entertainment, erotica. This enables filtering, which is a powerful tool that gives users power over what they see. Knowing data gives website owners the ability to pick and choose which parts of their data is searched, prioritize some data over others, and adjust wording, add synonyms, and apply many other such tools to gain greater control over the search engine. For example, our customers can impact the order of search results using customized ranking.
This is what Algolia provides for site search, where the content is known by the owner of the website.
This kind of control is not available to Google because they are not offering the same service as Algolia. As a web search engine, Google does not and cannot know the data it searches.
Instead, Google uses a ranking algorithm that is often referred to as alchemy or magic; and while they don’t give away their secrets, they do offer a set of techniques that website owners can use to improve their ranking, and therefore increase their web traffic and presence on the web. These techniques are grouped under the SEO (search engine optimization) label. We see the effects of SEO all the time. For example, some websites are favored over others, first name/last name combinations return famous people first, and it’s always easy to find someone’s LinkedIn account.
So let’s return to the point. The traffic on the word “lesbian” is largely traffic in search of erotica. According to the most popular porn websites, the word “lesbian” is the number one searched for term. You can see how this could be unsolvable if Google were to apply simple traffic-based popularity algorithm – such as, always show the most-visited websites first.
Luckily, SEO is far more sophisticated. SEO offers website owners and communities ways to improve the ranking of their own websites and that of the community they represent.
For our purposes, SEO would be a tool used to generate relevant content when searching for the word ‘lesbian’. And there may be a few ideas worth exploring to make the “lesbian” search experience more relevant, and less adventurous.
Leveraging the traffic of powerhouse sites like Wikipedia and other non-porn, high-traffic sites (e.g., medical websites, news and entertainment media) could be a suggestion. By leveraging, we mean creating a greater presence on these sites by adding more information about lesbians and using the word “lesbian” and other important terminology more consistently.
Essentially, this would mean adding more trustworthy content to every official website: .net, .gov, .edu, .org, and so on.
Another option could be to structure websites that contain information or services important to lesbians. Key websites need to present their content so that Google can more easily understand it – and trust it as well. Large companies hire SEO experts to advise on every word and page of a website. Most suggestions involve a consistent terminology, smaller webpages, short, clear text, and smart use of microdata (Google’s way of adding clearly-defined structure to a website). This list is not exhaustive
Here is where the community plays the greatest role. For Google, this represents the inner linking (called “backlinking”) within the community. Sites within the community need to hyperlink to each other, to facilitate better surfing. This builds a more significant presence in these sites, and also more trust in the community as a whole. Backlinking combines content and creates a collective voice.
While Google has lost some confidence in meta tags, because of abuse and faking it, there are still some critical meta information that you need to concern yourself with, such as
description tag on every page.
Note that these suggestions bear no guarantee. Anything that you do is also done by porn website owners. It’s a competitive race to the top. Your efforts have to be rigorous and unrelenting.
Interestingly enough, not every country has the same behavior. For example, English-speaking countries do not experience this, but French and Russian ones do. Hindi shows only links to Pride parades. Somehow, every country has a different set of results.
We can’t know exactly why this is. Some say it’s because Google turns safe search on in the background for this and other such potentially offensive ambiguities. Groups are organizing worldwide to raise awareness. If we consider these differences in light of our above suggestions:
All this makes a difference.
There is no doubt that you can create an alternative meaning of the word “lesbian” on the web. Google’s machines learn quickly, and while indeed the ranking algorithm is sometimes mysterious, it is far more intelligent and nuanced than a simple “traffic” algorithm. Search engines are not traffic cops that get run down by all the speeding motorists out for a cheap thrill. Search engines can detect competing voices, and help them be heard, but you have to know how to get and keep their attention.
A Team Effort