French communications consultant Fanchon Mayaudon-Nehlig got a call from the LGBTQ publication Têtu in July: “Hey, have you seen that the word ‘lesbienne’ [lesbian in French] is not associated with pornographic search results in Google anymore?”
Three months earlier, the founder of the activist group SEO Lesbienne had embarked on a campaign to change the search engine’s algorithm. The goal was for Google to stop highlighting pornographic content in search results for that French word.
“The funniest thing is, I was at work when I got the call, and the firewall at my client’s office blocked me from typing ‘lesbienne,’ as if it were a dirty word. I had to leave my workplace to see if it was true. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Mayaudon-Nehlig said in an interview with HuffPost Brazil.
For the first time, she could type the word “lesbienne” without any pornography popping up in the search results. On Aug. 9, Google announced that it had fixed the algorithm to provide better, more representative results.
The shift is in its early stages, so searches for related terms or for the word in other languages may still bring up pornographic content. Nonetheless, Mayaudon-Nehlig believes that this first step will lead to more change.
“SEO Lesbienne encourages lesbians everywhere to show their real lives online and to create more online content associated with the word ‘lesbienne’ in their own language,” she said.
HuffPost Brazil spoke with Mayaudon-Nehlig about the initiative, the reasons why the word “lesbienne” has been associated with sexual content for so many years, and the importance of this change.
Tell us a little bit about SEO Lesbienne’s history and operations, and how the campaign to change the search algorithm for this term began.
SEO Lesbienne is a French lesbian activist group. We are not paid and we don’t depend on any other organization. I created the hashtag #SEOlesbienne on Twitter in April after my wife, Louise, made me aware that she wasn’t comfortable using the word “lesbienne” in public. In France, at that point, some mainstream media were starting to talk about lesbians, and we lesbians were trying to raise awareness about how sexualized we are, especially on the internet.
As luck would have it, #SEOlesbienne had the opportunity to be heard and the story was covered by the French press (thanks to French tech news website Numerama and journalist Marie Turcan). But lesbians and activists have been aware of this for years. We had no clue whether Google would change anything about its algorithm, but we were willing to try. There were just two of us at SEO Lesbienne: my wife and I. I’m a communications consultant and she is a designer.
We had a feeling that it could work if we could bring on board some SEO experts, so we set up a meeting with a challenge: “We’re going to hack the SEO for the word ‘lesbienne.’” Since that initial meeting, SEO Lesbienne has been a mix of SEO experts and lesbians.
Our first action was to get people to realize there was a problem, an error in the search results for the word “lesbienne” on Google. At the time, search engine results only showed pornographic content.
How did you feel when you heard the news about the changes in the search algorithm?
First of all, I wasn’t expecting it! We knew that Google France could change the algorithm because there was a precedent with the word “chatte.” A Google search for that word led to vaginas, not kitty cats as you might expect, exposing children to sexual content. Because of that, we were about to petition Google France to take action on the word “lesbienne” being exclusively associated with pornography. We wanted to let them know how that was affecting the youngest ones in the community.
We knew that we weren’t only fighting for ourselves. It was too late for us. We’d had to deal with the situation for years. But we could make an impact for younger women who are just starting to question their sexual orientation. I remembered how surprised I was at the results I got as a teenager when I discreetly Googled “lesbienne.” I did not want to be a porn star, but Google seemed to think that was my only option!
Why was the term “lesbienne” still linked to sexual content when other words related to the LGBTQ community were not?
Some French LGBTQ activists didn’t even know that the word “lesbienne” was exclusively associated with pornographic content on Google, while the word “gay” was not. When they realized that injustice, they were surprised!
The thing is, as women, we can’t really call the internet as a whole a safe place, and the Google algorithm makes some connections that could be associated with a sexist point of view. … Pornography itself could provide an explanation. Gay porn is marketed to gay men. “Lesbienne” is a tag on pornographic sites marketed to heterosexual men. Lesbians on the internet are there to satisfy adult male sexual appetites. That’s the only goal.
What kind of effect did this change have on the lesbian community, and what could happen going forward?
The change made an enormous impact on the Google algorithm; we still don’t know just how big! We think that Google can help us make the word “lesbienne” more respected in all languages, and as a result, we can all be treated the way we deserve to be treated.
We also want people to be aware that Google doesn’t always reflect reality, and that we, as citizens, can unite and change SEO for the better. The word “lesbienne” does not belong to the porn industry. It belongs to us, and we are glad that Google gave us the opportunity to own it.
After this victory, what are the next steps for the LGBTQ community in terms of the pursuit of visibility and gender equality?
LGBTQ activists who are men should encourage more women to speak up, because it is not easy to be openly lesbian in public spaces and on the internet. We expose ourselves to misogyny and lesbophobia. I’ve had insults on my social media since SEO Lesbienne began, and I know I’m taking a risk by having my full name and face on media worldwide. But I feel I must do it on behalf of others who simply cannot speak up.
LGBTQ people don’t have the freedom to travel in some countries, where their very lives are at risk. We can’t live our lives without concern for our community in other countries. Recent history has shown how laws and governments affect our lives for the better, and also for the worse. Social media offers an opportunity for lesbians worldwide to unite and show that we exist and we matter!
In a few months, the French Parliament will discuss the question of medically assisted procreation for lesbians, and we will monitor how the word “lesbienne” evolves on Google during that tense time.
SEO Lesbienne encourages lesbians everywhere to show their real lives online and to create more online content associated with the word “lesbienne” in their own language.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.