The Neutral Default in Keyword Research

Posted by Alli Berry, SEO Analyst and Hayley Wolfcale, SEO Analyst

Keyword research is one of the most important pieces of any SEO initiative because it sheds insight into the language participants are using to search for products. While doing keyword research recently for several retail clients, we started to notice a peculiar pattern: keywords that had “women’s” or “girls’” in front or behind them were searched with significantly more frequency than those same terms for “men’s” and “boys’.” The screenshot below illustrates a number of variations of keywords for boys’ and girls’ swimwear.

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This same pattern presented itself again with terms regarding men’s and women’s active clothing.

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This pattern led us to question what this tells us more broadly about how people search for gender specific products. We turned to our backgrounds in the social sciences for an explanation of this phenomenon and a lens for our analysis.

In the social sciences this phenomenon is referred to as the “neutral default.” The fact that women’s and girls’ items must be defined by their gender is a sign that we, as a broadly defined society, assume that things are “male” or “for men” until told otherwise. In short: men are people while women are women.

We see the neutral default not just in words but in imagery and symbols as well. For example, public signs depicting a generic “stick figure” might represent any number of activities like a “Walk” traffic signal, a bicyclist or a train conductor, but only activities our society considers inherently feminine will be shown wearing a stick figure skirt.

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Although this is a sign for the men’s bathroom, the smaller sign indicating that this bathroom has a changing station is wearing a skirt, even though, as this sign shows, plenty of men have to change baby’s diapers, too.

What may seem like a small issue of wording or representation is actually part of a much larger problem. We may think of sexism only when confronted by the most extreme examples of violence towards women, discriminatory hiring practices, or off-color jokes, but the way in which our culture represents gender and uses gendered language is the most basic building block of a society that devalues women and women’s work (activities we think of as feminine). The neutral default in our society is male, and anything “Other” must be labeled as such.

As the age old question asks, which came first – the chicken or the egg?  Are searchers searching the way they are as a result of how brands market products; or, are brands marketing products as a result of how searchers search? We’re not completely sure.

As SEO practitioners, we conduct keyword research to help guide our phrasing choices like <TITLE> tags, <H1> tags, META description tags and copy blocks. When we find that people search for women’s items and not for the men’s equivalent, we are forced to make decisions on whether to perpetuate the gender default or use less commonly searched terms. If searchers get used to seeing products specifically labeled for women and not for men, we assume they are going to continue searching in that way unconsciously.

If the neutral default seems unavoidable, what are other ways for brands to combat this subtle form of sexism? Even if keywords must be gendered to attract the search engine spotlight, the context in which they exist can avoid sexist stereotypes. While a retailer may allow shoppers to sort by “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” there’s no reason that copy can’t make it clear that boys can enjoy dolls and kitchen sets as easily as little girls can have fun with action figures and superheroes. By remaining sensitive to the issues surrounding gendered language, copywriters, even those optimizing for SEO, can make strides towards change.

For more information on the neutral default, check out “Male as the Neutral Default” and “Stick Figures and Stick Figures who Parent” and the “Women and People” Pinterest board from Sociological Images.

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