Google’s John Mueller and Martin Splitt had two special guests on their podcast show this week to talk about how Google approaches inclusive language in search – a topic we briefly covered only once before over here. The short version of this 30 minute podcast is that Google Search will automatically handle inclusive language, like it does with any new type of terms or slang used.
The two guests were Zineb Ait Bahajji and Bruno Cartoni who work on this area at Google.
Inclusive language aims to avoid offense and fulfill the ideals of egalitarianism by avoiding expressions that express or imply ideas that are sexist, racist, or otherwise biased, prejudiced, or denigrating to any particular group of people (and sometimes animals as well). Use of inclusive language might be considered a form of political correctness; often the term “political correctness” is used to refer to this practice, either as a neutral description by supporters or commentators in general or with negative connotations among its opponents.
Zineb defined inclusive language as “a language that is actually free from words or phrases that are stereotyped or discriminatory. So for a very long time and in many languages, like French, for instance, the masculine form was the default expression in any context. So for example, people would say, “During the executive meeting, chairmen are leading the discussion.” But this could be a chairwoman. But the masculine would actually be used.”
About 8 minutes into the podcast, the Googlers describe some efforts they make in Google Search to make it more inclusive.
In French and in German, there is more and more this tendency to abbreviate the feminine and the masculine form together. So for example, instead of saying “étudiant” or student in the masculine form, and then to add and “étudiante”, so the feminine form– we would just contract everything together with a special character. So it would be “étudiant” followed by a special
character, like a dash or a slash, and then the final ending “e”, which is the feminine form. And more recently, we witnessed an increase in use, especially in
French, of a very special character, the middle dot, which is called in French, the point median. You can now find it on Google Gboard on mobile phone by long pressing the dot key.
John Mueller explained that Google goes about indexing for this purpose in three ways.
(1) Indexing – finding the words within documents and then expanding those words to include “some of those words into the appropriate versions.” John said “maybe drop the punctuation, if that’s kind of like not a natural word
boundary, but actually a sign that what is meant here is their different versions.”
(2) Ranking – John said the ranking, which John said is “all about the serving side of things.” John explained “we’ve seen from the previous episodes of the podcast that we do automatically kind of expand the query that we see, based on known synonyms, abbreviations, different versions of different words, and in practice, these systems tend to run automatically.” So Google is able to handle inclusive language and ranking it automatically.
(3) Entities – John said this is about understanding entities, both in the content and in queries and the individual attributes that are assigned. “So for example, we know that Eiffel tower is a structure, and it has a certain height. You can ask Google how tall is the Eiffel tower. For other entities, the gender may also play a role,” John explained.
John said this initially from the knowledge graph. The knowledge graph “tends to be built up automatically based on the content that we find online. However, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically always correct. For example, if you ask who is the second lady of the United States, well, the role is still the same, but it’s different now because the US Vice President is a woman and she’s married to a man. Therefore, the title is now w different. And this kind of bias needs to be improved both in our languages and of course in Google systems.”
Here is the podcast, it is an interesting podcast to listen to:
When writing, you need to think about how to make everyone feel included when they read what you are writing, Zineb and Bruno said. They also said that the search engines need to adapt to how people write and not tell people how to write. But there is a trend to people writing in a more inclusive manner. Plus, each language has its own challenges around inclusive languages, including male or female and other areas – some are easier to deal with and some are harder – it is all language dependent.
Google is at the early stages on working on this topic across the various Google services and products.
Here are the key points that John summed up at the end:
(1) Ideally search engines would automatically show a diverse set of content across all different aspects.
(2) Search engines should be automatically able to use the different common forms of inclusive writing when they’re found on a website. So the goal should be that these pages are automatically processed and accessible for any searches that are related to that.
(3) Ideally, site owners, they should just use inclusive writing techniques whenever they’re appropriate.
(4) People like you, or listeners, should continue pushing search engines so that it kind of keeps working better because without this gentle nudge across the board, I think it’s very easy also for search engines to say, “Well, it seems to be working okay. Maybe we don’t need to change anything.” But perhaps we do need to change some things. Again, it is an interesting topic and I recommend you listen to it. I don’t think this is a pure SEO thing, it is a reminder that we should all think to write this way and it is not easy. Trust me, I mess up doing this all the time.”
(5) Zineb added “Write for your users. And your users are diverse. You don’t only have an audience of male or female readers. So make sure that everyone feels included when they read whatever you write online.”
Forum discussion at Twitter.