How Google's Thirst for Quants Caused Its Sexist Ban on Cougar Dating Ads

Last Updated Dec 14, 2010 8:36 PM EST

  • Correction: Google spokesperson Diana Adair says that the company has always treated "cougar" and "sugar daddy" dating sites the same way, and that neither are allowed on its content network. That statement means that the New York Times' story on the topic, on which the item below was based, is completely wrong. This item is therefore equally inaccurate, and should be ignored. Apologies.
One possible reason Google (GOOG) stumbled on its sexist "no-cougars" advertising policy is because the people it tends to hire are too smart, and its job interview questions tend to screen out people with the modest levels of common sense that the most of us take for granted.

The search giant banned ads for dating sites like CougarLife, where older women seek younger men, from its "content network," which includes, YouTube and MySpace. But it doesn't ban ads for sites where older men seek younger women, even sites such as, where girls name their monthly price requirements.

Google's statement on the double-standard speaks volumes. It declined to say it would apply the same standard to sugar daddy ads (which reportedly still run on the network) but affirmed its ban on cougar ads:

We can't comment on specific advertisers, but our policy is that adult dating ads are classified as nonfamily-safe, meaning that they will not show on the Google Content Network.
Why would a company filled with such smart people make such a dumb mistake? Possibly it's because Google values "quants" -- people who are adept at complex math and engineering -- over people with the soft, qualitative skills that can make or break good management.

You can get an idea of the kind of person Google wants to hire by looking at web sites that track the company's infamously tough hiring questions. About 140 of them have been collected here, and there's a selection of the toughest here. Here's a sample question for someone being hired as a software engineer:

You have eight balls all of the same size. 7 of them weigh the same, and one of them weighs slightly more. How can you fine the ball that is heavier by using a balance and only two weighings?
That was an easy one, for a quant. To solve the puzzle you need a working knowledge of the principles of logic and decision trees. Which most of us, like me, either don't have or have forgotten. Now check out the questions for an Adwords associate or a product marketing manager:
What's a creative way of marketing Google's brand name and product?

How would you deal with an angry or frustrated advertisers on the phone?

Yikes. Nothing personal, Google, but you're not going to get high-caliber candidates if that's the hurdle they have to jump.

One is tempted to conclude that Google is populating its ranks with high-powered quants, who infamously lack the social intelligence that resides in abundance among non-quants. (That's why top-level business schools run post-graduate courses in social intelligence -- because they know the corporate finance geeks they attract lack it.)

You can see this in the way Google's management views its mission: It regards the company as a way of indexing and searching all of the world's information, as if information was a neutral, aggregated commodity. But there's a difference between collecting good data (what quants do) and applying good judgment to data (which is what good managers do). As the cougar problem shows, reflexively adjusting the software is just one skill. Google also needs people who can think creatively about why the software is being adjusted, which is what didn't happen in this case.