Word blacklists, censorship, and Google Shopping

As of recently, Google have ‘broken’ Google Shopping. It appears they have set up a blacklist of words which cannot be used in searches.

The problem is commonly called the Scunthorpe Problem. This is where certain words or phrases are caught by a spam filter or search engine because the words used contains a string of letters which have been deemed to be unfit to be used. As can be seen with with the words Scunthorpe, Shitake Mushrooms, Superbowl XXX, Arsenal, Assassinate, and even Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd.

The same problem appears to be occurring on Google Shopping today.

Google Shopping Search for nerf gun

Google Shopping Search for gunmetal

Try searching for ‘nerf gun‘, or ‘gundam‘ or ‘gungrave‘, and you get no results.

With only these basic searches, it seems that the keyword ‘gun‘ has been added to this disallowed words list, without much consideration of impact.

This raises many questions over Safe Harbour provisions, as well as censorship in general. Despite many differing opinions, guns are not illegal to search for or buy in some countries – and more importantly this impacts on other, genuinely inoffensive search terms. Google have a long history of concerns over censorship, and it is always a difficult line to tread between free speech, law, personal and social moralities, and a system which works…


Youtuber, Programmer, and TV presenter, Tom Scott, made an excellent video about this back in June 2016: