Why Google Thinks You Are (a) Male and (b) Old

By Veronique Greenwood | January 30, 2012 12:54 pm


A funny thing happened after Google’s new privacy policy was announced last week. When people started checking what Google knows about them on Ad Preferences Manager—that’s the profile of you they build by watching your movements on the Web, so they can tailor ads accordingly—young women began reporting that actually, Google had aged them quite a bit. And had thought they were dudes. One young lady of our acquaintance is believed by the Ad Preferences genie to be a “65+” male. Why?

Well, as Kashmir Hill at Forbes points out, the way Ad Preferences works is by placing a cookie on the computer you happen to be using at the moment. The cookie records the sites you visit, each of which has certain user demographic information, like percentage of male and female visitors, age range, etc. ascribed to it by Google (though where they get that information, and how accurate it is, is not clear). Then Ad Preferences combines all the demographics of those sites to get your special blend of age, gender, interest in power tools, etc. Your Ad Preferences profile is not based on your Google profile—what you search, what you talk about in your Gmail, what you upload to YouTube. It’s based just on what you visit.

Additionally, each computer you use gets its own cookie, so it’s not like the Ad Preference readout you’d see if you checked it right now encompasses all the browsing you do. Whatever computer you check your Ad Preferences on will have a sense of you that’s based on what you browse on that computer. So if you’re checking it on your work machine, and you read and write about science and tech, for instance, chances are the mostly-male statistics assigned to those fields will dominate your profile. The woman who was mistaken for a 65-year-old man works at a law school, in fact; perhaps spending all day on law sites and databases is an activity dominated older males. You’re probably most likely to get an accurate description of yourself if you visit mainly sites that are associated with your demographic. If you read stuff that other people of your age and gender usually don’t, you’re going to be pigeonholed as whatever is dominant on those sites.

But this whole thing has got us wondering how accurate sites’ demographic information really is. How do they come up with it? Are there a bunch of stealth females on tech sites who aren’t getting recognized?

As for me, it stuck me in the right age range (25-34), but thinks I’m male, with a penchant for reading oil and gas business sites and an interest in computers and electronics, which is a pretty small slice of my web-reading pie.

What does your Ad Preferences readout say about you? And is it right?

[via Forbes]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • Kristi

    On my home computer, Ad Preferences thinks I’m a 25-34 year old woman, which is correct. But it thinks the user of my work computer is a 65+ year old man. I’m a medical librarian so I’m assuming the discrepancy on my work computer is due to my research habits since, as far as I know, Google has never seen me shake my fist at my neighbor’s kids and yell at them for throwing trash in my yard.

  • http://schrodingerskitten.co.uk Schrodinger’s Kitten

    It thinks 18-24, male – younger than me and significantly more XY. But since I find most girly things rather boring, I’m fine with that. In fact, I’ve deliberately changed my gender setting on facebook because I’d rather have hot blondes and technology advertised at me than weight loss and beauty flummery.

  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    They got my age/gender right (25-34 yr old male), though the categories aren’t very accurate:

    Arts & Entertainment – TV & Video – Online Video
    Autos & Vehicles
    Autos & Vehicles – Motorcycles
    Business & Industrial
    Computers & Electronics – Programming – C & C++
    Science – Biological Sciences – Anatomy

    I’m gonna delete the 2nd, 3rd, & 4th entries, and I’m disappointed it didn’t see me as a physicist, oh well! Wish I could change the C/C++ to Python, and where is economics?

  • Karen

    The key here is “The cookie records the sites you visit, each of which has certain user demographic information” — so Google is pushing blame for the sexist assumptions back onto the sites themselves, I guess. I call shenanigans on the whole exercise.

    Of course Google thought I was male — I don’t buy shoes or makeup online. I’m just turning off the statistics-gathering to save my blood pressure. (The age range was right, but only because I’m old.)

  • James Harmer

    They’ve got me 20 years older than I really am, and interested in Cars and Industry. I don’t even own a car, which shows you how accurate that is. And industry bores me rigid. I am male, so google got that right, but I suspect it thinks everyone is male unless they do repeated searches for pink fluffy lipstick. In which case google would put you down as male and gay.

  • http://sqlinthewild.co.za Gail

    It hasn’t managed to figure out demographics for me, for whatever reason, but it’s categories were hit and miss.

    Movies – Sci fi and Fantasy (correct)
    Aerospace and defence (well, correct on the aerospace)
    Computer hardware (correct)
    Agriculture and Forestry (incorrect)
    Construction (incorrect)

    It also completely missed software (C#) and database platforms (SQL Server) which are probably 80% of my web browsing.

    Oh well…

  • Rebecca W.

    Lol @ James Harmer. It thinks I’m male too – and I’m not. It also aged me ten years and thinks I’m into cooking, parenting, cameras, and photo editing software (correct) and headphones and games (not so much). Not very worried about a massive invasion of my privacy here.

  • http://orenetaaground@gmail.com oreneta

    Added 20 + or- years and the wrong gender. There you have it! And I do not do science writing, nor do I work for a law firm. On top of that my kids use my computer quite a lot, so the profile for webkins seems to be 65+ men as well, which is more than a little alarming, no? Except it isn’t. I hope.

  • http://omegamom.com OmegaMom

    Hey! I’ve discovered the fountain of youth! Last week, Google claimed I was 65+; this week, Google says I’m between 45 and 54 (proper age group)! Still thinks I’m male, though…I wonder just what it was I was searching this week on this computer that made it change its “mind”.

  • Meg

    Cool! I’m an 18-24 year old male (actual 40-50 year old female–I’m guessing some of my 10-year-old’s web searches skewed the data). Since this is the most prized demographic among advertisers, for the next week I’m going to browse with an eye toward messing up their information. Yes, 18-24 year old males are interested in global warming, princess toys, and Jane Austen novels.

  • Glidingpig

    “You do not currently have a ID cookie”.

    I use Firefox with NoScript and AddBlock. I do not like anyone following me around. And really, isn’t the internet for porn?

  • http://www.elizabethmoon.com Elizabeth Moon

    Right age group, wrong sex. This is the only computer I’m online with and the only person using this computer. So where it goes is where I want to go, unless I click on a link that goes somewhere I thought it didn’t.

    Somehow the Googlebot is missing the science, mostly but not exclusively biology (BugGuide.net, Odonata Central, BAMONA, Listservs for various wildlife groups but also regular linking to NATURE and other science journals), the space stuff (lots of NASA related sites) , the writing stuff (editor, publisher, writer blogs), and within music the vocal stuff. Subsuming all the history, economics, and politics under “social sciences” is OK, I guess, but I suspect it’s confusing psychology with neurology (autism, dear Google, is a neurological condition even if it is in DSM-IV). And surely the number of times I wander over to Williams-Sonoma to look at cookware should get me on the list for cooking stuff. The only online groupiness it lists for me is photo-sharing (um…yes, I do post photos on LJ at times, but I’m not on Flickr or other big photo sites) and that misses out, again, on the biology sites and also on the parenting sites. Oh, and the knitting. (I guess if it noticed the knitting and cooking, it would have to consider me female, and that’s too confusing?)

    I still don’t want Google as my nanny, pointing me at what it thinks I should be interested in and following me around to coordinate my life. Especially as it’s so wrong in its inferences.

  • NancyB

    Gender is correct (female), but they have me younger than I am by 10+ years in their 35-44 range. The categories are mostly understandable given recent browsing, except the home furnishings, rugs and carpets. I have *no* idea where that one came from.

  • Cathy

    Google thinks I am 18-24 and male. I’m a 32 year old female. It’s not my fault I’m an IT student, play video games, and hang around Slashdot all day.

  • scribbler

    I’m about as male heterosexual as you can get and I enjoyed Jane Austen novels when I was a teen… 😉

  • Lorena

    where is the age and sex? I didnt see it. google thinks I am interested in classical music, body art, nails and body lotions or something like that. ;D I use stumble upon a lot and I like watching pages of tattoos, tatoos fails and make up. But it really didnt realize that another interest of mine is astronomy and that I visit lots of astronomy sites :S

  • Chris

    Pretty accurate although I wonder about the “Science – Biological Sciences – Anatomy” Umm, does that mean I peruse the naughty sites a bit too much?

  • Jon Deane

    Your link to the ad preferences readout doesn’t work.

  • floodmouse

    I am invisible to Google.

    “No interest or demographic categories are associated with your ads preferences so far.”

  • Terry

    They think I’m male, and 24 – 35 years old. I’m a 61-year-old female. They have me showing a great interest in cosmetics and hair care products – I don’t use cosmetics, and as far as I know, I have NEVER looked at or for hair care products online. What a joke.

  • D Braithwaite

    Google has no god damn clue who I am. Cookies disabled, Firefox + Adblock. I never see any ads (not even text ads), I’ve never clicked on any ads, and Google is unable to place a cookie on my laptop or iPad (iPads don’t even support cookies) in order to track my web habits. My ad preferences are blank – “no information” it says. Suck on that, Google.

  • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Cath the Canberra Cook

    I checked several browsers. In my main home browser I have adblock, noscript and requestpolicy and I keep them fairly locked down. I’m pleased to see it works and they have no info on me. Since I gmail from there, that’ s good, they are telling the truth.

    At work I’m a 10-year younger male (wrong), presumably from the work-related statistics, coding and my “take a break browsing” science and atheist sites.
    At home with the other browser, which is limited to facebook and related links out, I’m a 20-year younger female – presumably from all the recipe and feminist sites.

  • http://lexirevellian.blogspot.com/ Lexi Revellian

    They’ve got me wrong, wrong, wrong. And, mwahahahahaha, I’m not going to put them right.

    *soothing voice* Yes, Google, of course I’m a 65+ male and interested in rock music and video games. How clever you are…

  • http://www.misscellania.com/ Miss Cellania

    I am 54 and female, and share a computer with three teenage girls. Google assumes I am male, 25-34. That’s some bad assuming. Maybe all those statistics we see about internet usage are all based on assumptions, and just plain wrong.

  • Anne

    Google’s data has assumed I’m a male between 25-34 – wrong sex and a decade younger than my actual age. A good thing might come out of Google’s data gathering. What if the world stopped assuming that women’s interests were limited to fashion, beauty, dieting, parenting, cooking and cleaning? We’ve known for a long time that these notions were outdated yet still persistent. Maybe Google’s data can be a catalyst for changing these damaging assumptions. Facts have the power to change minds.

  • Karolien

    I think Google’s assumptions are rather sexist. In education, medical area’s and law the majority is female; yet Google assumes male domination if the site hasn’t anything to do with fashion, plastic surgery, motherhood etc. Please step into the 21st century and recognize women are humans with lots of interests. To Anne: just read a study that implies gut feelings and prejudice are the most powerful factors in making up minds. Facts didn’t change that. For instance: people had factual test questions about evolution right. They knew the facts, but their gut feelings and prejudice had them convinced evolution was wrong.

  • Magoonski

    Mine says nothing because I disabled it and have all of my cookies, etc. deleted when turning off my browser.
    It would be my guess that they would probably peg me as older, etc. because I do read lots (and I mean LOTS) of science focused blogs in my free time. Though to be honest I wouldn’t mind the ads for men considering how lame birth control and tampon ads are (not to mention those yogurt ads, why do they only target women?).

  • http://stochasticscientist.blogspot.com/ Kathy Orlinsky

    It had me as male. I get the feeling that if you mostly look at science and skeptical sites, as I do, and not so much cooking and make-up, Google assumes you must be a man. In fact, from scanning these comments, it seems that more women get labeled male than women by a large margin. Google, get your act together!

  • Jeanean Jean

    I’m listed as an 18-24 year old male. I am a nearly sixty year old female.
    Hmm. Guess I’m watching too much Youtube…

  • Daniel

    I’m 42 this month, but was in the 25-34 y/o demographic. Young people been jackin’ my swag, yo.


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