In a confusing week as far as politics in the USA are concerned, it turns out when you search for the word "idiot" on Google, images of US President, Donald Trump, are returned as search results. Even more interesting is that the results are different when you search for "idiot" on Microsoft's Bing or DuckDuckGo.
Google search results for the word "idiot".
Bing search results for the word "idiot".
DuckDuckGo search results for the word "idiot".
In fact, the Bing and DuckDuckGo image search results are quite similar. Even weirder is that on the first page of results they don't even return any images of Donald Trump.
So, is Google's search algorithm doing this purposefully?
Is Google search, as far as this example is concerned, biased?
How Google search works
Understanding how a normal (text) Google search works is relatively straightforward, but what methodology or algorithm does Google use to determine which images are relevant to a text search?
For the purposes of this article, we'll use and refer to Google search given that it is not only the largest search engine but also the one that has everyone talking about the search results returned for the word " idiot." Also, we will be strictly referring to text searches for images using Google Images Search.
Google states that "[image search] analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content." Added to that, Google uses sophisticated algorithms to remove duplicate images and ensure that the best quality images are presented first in your results.
What this means is that whoever writes an article determines (mostly, there are other factors too) whether an image appears in Google Image Search results or not. This partly depends on the keywords they use adjacent or in the caption of the image, not necessarily the "content" of the image. Also, Google indexes the images on a website the same way it indexes web pages, by crawling across the Internet periodically.
A quick investigation of the pages in the search results for the word "idiot" proves this to be true. In each of the links where Donald Trump's image appears, the word "idiot" appears as a keyword and in most cases close to his image or sometimes in the caption.
It's also going to get worse, and somewhat meta, as more and more people write about "Google the word idiot, Trump appears."
- 21 July 2018 - Microsoft Bing and DuckDuckGo search results for "idiot" are similar because DuckDuckGo uses Bing's search API.
Cover image credit: Screenshot of Google Image Search results for the word "idiot".