What begins with L-E-S-B ?

Nothing much, according to Google and their new instant search.

Instant search is a neat new addition to Google. Start typing and you’ll see results right away. As you type, results match what you’ve entered so far. So type the word ‘lettuce’ into Google.co.uk and after the ‘le’ you’ll see stuff about the city of Leeds. Add the ‘t’ and Google suggests ‘Letters to Juliet’ with alternatives you can click on that will give different results.

Type in ‘Gone Digital’ and I’m flattered to see that this blog comes near the top, and there’s even a suggestion ‘Gone Digital Blog.’ And all the while, as you type away, the results update on the fly.

Well, almost all the while. Now try slowly typing the word ‘lesbian.’ You’ll see all that stuff about Leeds, and then stuff about Les Miserable. And then when you get to the letter b, it all goes quiet. There are, it seems, no sites that match what you might be typing, and not even any words that Google might like to suggest you’re trying to find. Not the Greek island of Lesbos, or Lesbian.

If you want to search for any of those, you have to finish typing the word, and then press Enter. People have long talked of ‘lesbian invisibility’ (and not in a superhero sort of way), but this is a little extreme on Google’s part.

Gay men fare a bit better, in that Google does actually concede the existence of the word as a search term, but type that ‘y’ after ‘ga’ and once again, there are no results show, unless you click Enter.

This might seem resolutely trivial to some people, but it’s certainly interesting. Malcolm Coles blogged about this earlier – I’m just riding his coat tails – and the reason seems to be that there may be some things that are so unpleasant you don’t want people inadvertently seeing them in partial results. I can understand that.

But what I can’t understand is why, in the 21st century, the top hits for the word ‘Gay’ should be hidden, nor why the word ‘Lesbian’ is likely to unsettle people so much that it can’t even be offered as a search suggestion.

Get your act together, Google!

Google instant search
Google may know the word Gay, but it won't show you any instant results
Google Instant search LE
Leeds, then Les Mis, what begins with L-E-S-B ?
Google instant search LESB
Nothing, according to Google. Lesbians and the isle of Lesbos aren't even words they want you to know you can search for

6 Replies to “What begins with L-E-S-B ?”

  1. The same seems to apply to any “naughty” words you might care to type although there are some cunning exceptions. Type “shit” and you get links about the charming village of Shitterton until you press enter and then the subject gets dirtier. Guess it’s a prude filter to ensure that the easily offended don’t accidentally see topics they didn’t intend on searching for.

    1. I can see they felt a need to stop people getting intermediate results that might be a little alarming, to put it mildly.
      But Google does have an adult filter, which they could apply to stop that happening, for example defaulting to having safe search as you type and – if your prefs have been set for no filtering – to relax the filter if you click the Search button, or press Enter.
      And even so, it still leaves the question of why lesbos and lesbian aren’t even offered as word suggestions. That, frankly, is a little like Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to believe that they exist.
      Look at the first page of results for the word ‘Gay’ – it’s hardly inflammatory stuff, with the top couple being Wikipedia, Channel 4 and a couple of innocuous videos. Most people won’t go much further down the page that that, especially if it’s not what they’re looking for. If they do, they’ll find such cesspools of depravity as the Gay Police Association, and Gay Times magazine; nothing on that page is – or certainly should be – so repellent to people in the UK in 2010 that it, specifically, has to be hidden from anyone who accidentally types the letters ‘G A Y’

  2. Certainly agree though I don’t think any keyword should be blocked, we don’t censor the dictionary and keywords like “gay” and “lesbian” aren’t offensive and perfectly acceptable for use in regulated environments like pre-watershed TV.

  3. Is this because of the prevalence of employers snooping on workers internet use in offices? Is it because in some offices if the words gay or lesbian are transmitted from or to the workstation, alarm bells start ringing in the lair of the internet police? Whilst that may not happen as much in this country, some things I read suggest it may in the US.

    Perhaps Google are just trying to prevent workers getting into trouble when searching for something completely different that causes instant search to suddenly send them a list of search results that will have them explaining themselves in front of someone trying to fire them.

    Linking it to the users safe-search does seem an obvious feature. However, even that could beg questions about over-categorising these terms into the most extreme category.

    1. Well, I can see a justification for not automatically displaying results for that, but I’m still somewhat at a loss as to know why the very existence of the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘lesbos’ has to be filtered out, and even a safe search for ‘gay’ isn’t acceptable.

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