February 19, 2007

The chosen people

If you do a Google search on "Jew" (or of course "jew"), you get a "sponsored link" message from Google:

Offensive Search Results

We're disturbed about these results as well.  Please read our note here.

As far as I can tell, "Jew" is the only word that elicits an "offensive search" note and an apology from Google.  There's a history here that I don't think we've talked about before on Language Log.

First, Google's note, in full:

An explanation of our search results.

If you recently used Google to search for the word "Jew," you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google. We'd like to explain why you're seeing these results when you conduct this search.

A site's ranking in Google's search results is automatically determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted. A search for "Jew" brings up one such unexpected result.

If you use Google to search for "Judaism," "Jewish" or "Jewish people," the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for "Jew" different? One reason is that the word "Jew" is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word "Jewish" when talking about members of their faith. The word has become somewhat charged linguistically, as noted on websites devoted to Jewish topics such as these:

Someone searching for information on Jewish people would be more likely to enter terms like "Judaism," "Jewish people," or "Jews" than the single word "Jew." In fact, prior to this incident, the word "Jew" only appeared about once in every 10 million search queries. Now it's likely that the great majority of searches on Google for "Jew" are by people who have heard about this issue and want to see the results for themselves.

Our search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google. Some people concerned about this issue have created online petitions to encourage us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Because of our objective and automated ranking system, Google cannot be influenced by these petitions. The only sites we omit are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results.

We apologize for the upsetting nature of the experience you had using Google and appreciate your taking the time to inform us about it.

The Google Team

p.s. You may be interested in some additional information the Anti-Defamation League has posted about this issue at http://www.adl.org/rumors/google_search_rumors.asp. In addition, we call your attention to Google's search results on this topic.

Apparently the whole thing started back in March 2004 when a Google user noticed that a search on "Jew" brought up as its top item the anti-Semitic site jewwatch.com and started a petition drive (via the site removejewwatch.com) to have Google alter its search results.  The message above was Google's response: Google can't jiggle its algorithm to change the ranking of particular sites (and of course it has no power to remove sites from the net, though it can filter out sites so that they don't appear in searches at all), but it can warn its readers and apologize to them.  [2/20/07: Thanks to several readers for clarifying Google's problem here.]

The anti-Semitic site is still alive, but Google's search algorithm now ranks it fifth in a search on "Jew", after two Wikipedia entries and two links to the Judaism 101 site, all of them using "Jew" to mean 'Jewish person' in a perfectly ordinary and inoffensive way; from the Judaism 101 site:

I do not claim to be a rabbi or an expert on Judaism; I'm just a traditional, observant Jew who has put in a lot of research.

(Note how ridiculous "a traditional, observant Jewish person" or "traditionally, observantly Jewish" would sound.)

A search on "Jews" now gets the site as its fourth hit, and triggers the "offensive search" warning.  The site doesn't come up in the first hundred hits on "Jewish" or "Judaism", and there's no warning for these searches.  Startlingly, a search on "jewwatch" itself gets 34,400 hits and no warning.  Except in its name, the site seems to consistently use "Jewish" rather than "Jew" as a prenominal modifier.  And Google HAS in a sense meddled with the search results to some extent, but only by replacing the site description [2/20/07: several corresondents have now explained that Google doesn't write this stuff itself, but usually gets its descriptions from the Open Directory Project]; the site's self-description

Frank Weltner, M.A. English & Certified Librarian
Presents His Famous Scholarly Library of Factual Links Known Around the World

The Jew Watch Project Is The Internet's Largest Scholarly Collection of Articles on Jewish History
Free Educational Library for Private Study, Scholarship, and Research

has been replaced by the rather more cautious characterization

Archive of essays, articles and online books about a perceived international Jewish conspiracy.

Meanwhile, other words that have uses as offensive epithets, or are used ONLY as offensive epithets, get no warning from Google.  Richard Parker reports from the Philippines that his searches on the following items went through without comment from Google (I give them all here in lower case; the tongue-in-cheek characterizations are from Parker):

coon, frog, homsi ("the stupidest people in Syria"), kike, kraut, kurd ("the second most reviled people in Turkey"), laz ("the most reviled people in Turkey"), mick ("the stupidest people in Europe"), nigger, paddy (see "mick"), pommy, raghead, spic, yank

(The fourth hit for "nigger" is a site offering "nigger jokes, jew jokes, racist jokes, spic jokes".  Not a pleasant site.)

At this point, Parker ran out of racial/ethnic epithets, though he did supply links to collections of Homsi and Paddy/Mick jokes.  I tried a few more items, with similarly negative results:

bohunk, chink, greaser, jap, paki, polack, taffy, wop

A search on "homosexual" pulls up the homophobic Paul Cameron as the fourth hit (and the parody-of-homophobia Betty Bowers site as the eighth), but there's no warning from Google.

Now, the problem with "Jew"/"Jews" and "homosexual" (and, for that matter, "Kurd" and "Laz") isn't really with the words themselves, but with the way some people use them in some contexts; in this respect, they're unlike "kike"and "Jap" and most of the other items above (as applied to people), and more like the use of "French" by some people as an insult.  Nevertheless, we're inclined to blame the word rather than the user of the word.

In certain contexts, these words are pretty much guaranteed to be unfriendly, if not flat-out offensive.  The noun "Jew" as a prenominal modifier, as in "a Jew organization", is not at all Jew-friendly (note the parallel to "Democrat" used as a prenominal modifier, commented on by Mark Liberman here), and "the homosexual agenda" and "the homosexual lifestyle" are probably not gay-friendly (though both have been used mockingly by gay people).  But there are other contexts in which they're neutral, as you can see by looking at the results of Google searches on them.  And there are contexts in which alternatives like "Jewish" are not much better; when you read "Jewish conspiracy" (unhedged) or "Jewish terrorists", you know you're probably not in a Jew-friendly space.  Weltner could have called his site Jewish Watch rather than the obviously in-your-face alternative he chose, but that wouldn't have made the site any less anti-Semitic.  And then Google would probably have felt obliged to issue a warning about the results of searches on "Jewish", with a very different rationale for its warning from the one above.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 19, 2007 12:25 PM