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Did Google Make The Right Call With This Algorithm Change?

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Did Google Make The Right Call With This Algorithm Change?
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Google recently launched an update to its algorithm to take action against sites that post mugshots of people, and charge money to have them removed. While the move could go a long way in keeping people’s online reputations from suffering irreparable damages, at least one of the sites targeted thinks the update is actually putting people in danger by hiding criminal behavior.

Do you think Google made the right move in implementing this algorithm change? Let us know what you think in the comments.

The news came as The New York Times posted an in-depth report on the practice and Google’s high rankings of results from such sites. Google, however, said that the update has been in the works for most of the year.

The basic gist of the article was that there are a bunch of sites out there that make money by gathering mugshots (which are in the public domain), and then get ranked in the search results for name searches for the people who appear in the shots. Before this update, these sites were ranking very well in Google, and causing major reputation-damaging problems for the people. And we’re not talking just hardened criminals, murderers and sex offenders here. We’re talking about people who were arrested, but never convicted, people that made minor mistakes, and have repaid their “debt to society,” and others who simply don’t deserve to have a mugshot be the first thing that comes up in a Google search for their name when they’re trying to get a job.

Really, this can hurt not only the people looking for jobs, but also businesses that may be missing out on highly qualified talent due to these results tarnishing the image of the prospect. And what if want of these individuals are looking to start their own businesses?

The sites charge money to have the damaging content removed. According to the report, this can sometimes be as much as $400, and even one the person pays one site, the same content is likely to appear on similar sites. That very fact might be one of the reasons that Google decided to take action, because historically, Google hasn’t much cared about removing reputation-damaging content unless legally required to do so.

This week, Mugshots.com, one of the sites named in the NYT piece, has put out a press release attacking Google and its algorithm change with a big ol’ “no free speech” symbol at the top:

Mugshots.com on free speech

The release discusses an article the site posted on its blog, and says:

While individuals arrested for minor offenses or never convicted enjoy the attention of sympathetic news media, what gets lost in the emotional mix is previously a Google search also returned results showing the criminal history of individuals arrested for extremely serious crimes as well as convictions. Except in extremely limited situations discussed in our article, that’s not the case anymore. Thanks to Google’s algorithm change, there is now an enormous public safety blind spot that puts every person in the country at potential risk who performs a Google search on someone with a criminal history—that number is in the millions. Google’s algorithm change does not discriminate; it protects and shields the sympathetic and the truly wicked alike at the expense of public safety and the ability to make meaningful informed decisions by millions of Americans.

A person’s arrest, even for a minor offense and/or for which the person was never convicted, is always relevant information to the individual performing the search. That’s one important piece of information people naturally want to take into consideration when making an informed decision. However, Google has made the determination for all Americans that you shouldn’t have easy access to public information of an indisputable fact and undeniably relevant by intentionally concealing it.

Google is the go-to place for information. If information isn’t there, it simply doesn’t exist for most Internet users. It’s not an overstatement to say that with its algorithm change Google has effectively hidden from public view the criminal history of most individuals arrested and convicted in this country. While arrest records are available at government websites, they almost never appear during a search of a person’s name even when the person has been arrested and convicted. Prior to the algorithm change, a simple search of just about anyone with a criminal history appeared prominently in search results with a link to a website that publishes mugshots. Google cannot, with a clear conscience, now deprive millions of Americans access to vital public records with a shrug and note that they’re available elsewhere.

For example, news articles have been written about a particular Illinois attorney, but if he were like most arrestees, there wouldn’t be any news coverage of his arrest for stealing $1.2 million from seven clients. For potential clients performing Google searches on him now, the most relevant search result would be his BBB rating of ‘A+’, nothing about his arrest as was the case before the algorithm modification. Similarly, there is the case of an Ohio babysitter arrested after videotape surfaced of her raping an infant in her care. If news stories weren’t written about her as is the case with most arrests, anyone performing a Google search on her wouldn’t be alerted to the disgusting allegations against her since no government website with her arrest appears in the early pages of a Google search. Even though both individuals have “only” been arrested, isn’t that information you’d consider relevant in deciding whether to allow them into your life? Google doesn’t think so. To learn more about them and the disturbing unintended consequences of Google’s decision, please read our full article.

You can read it here if you like, but you can probably get the basic premise from the above text.

While there might be some legitimate points made within Mugshot.com’s writings about unintended consequences (we’ve certainly seen those with other Google updates), they really don’t address one of the main points of the media coverage of Google’s update, which is that of sites charging people (even those without criminal charges) to have their mugshots removed – the apparent business model of such sites.

It’s also unclear how any of this is a free speech issue.

Either way, the story does highlight the control Google has over the flow of information on the Internet. It’s true that this info is still out there, but Google has such a huge share of the search market, it requires people to step outside of their comfortable habits to find information other ways. But Google is not keeping these sites from continuing their practices. Google doesn’t have quite that much power. And doesn’t Google have the same “free speech” right to dictate the kinds of results it wants to show people on its own site?

Google hasn’t really talked about this update a whole lot other than to acknowledge its existence (at least from what I’ve seen). They did give the NYT this statement:

“Our team has been working for the past few months on an improvement to our algorithms to address this overall issue in a consistent way. We hope to have it out in the coming weeks.”

If Google opened up more about it, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is more about search quality than Google taking sides on the reputations of third-parties. That’s not really Google’s style. Not when it comes to lawful content.

That bit about unintended consequences is likely to be in the back of some webmasters’ minds too. Google’s updates are rarely (if ever) perfect, and sometimes there are unintended casualties. In this case those casualties may never know if they were impacted by this update, as the timing of it was very close to the latest Penguin update. Lets hope there aren’t people chasing an impossible Penguin recovery as a result.

What do you think of the “Mugshot” update? Does Mugshots.com have a point, or is Google doing the right thing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Images: PRNewsWire and JustMugShots

Did Google Make The Right Call With This Algorithm Change?
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  • http://www.squirrly.co/ Alexandra Petean-Nicola

    I don’t consider it a free speech issue. It’s also a very one sided story. What about the people that got to spend a few years in jail and then they are haunted for the rest of their life, by the mugshots they have on Google. There is no way you can reintegrate people into society of all their information is public and at a click away. People judge. In the end, that’s the real issue.

  • http://thiscallsforalcohol.tumblr.com/ Destitute American

    Ok, typed too fast with lots of errors.

    Google is once again flexing its tyrant muscles over data. It’s a free speech issue only to the extent that Google is now the active manipulator of relevant data and is purposely suppressing it. This is nearly as good as deleting it since it becomes harder to find without real effort beyond the initial search pages— which is what most people check.

    I am probably uncaring either way on the “charging” people part because I would think that anyone running a legitimate background check will find the record anyway, thus the urge to remove the mugshot from the public domain is a personal want, not a necessity. The examples in the NY Times article were of people legitimately arrested like Birnbaum (he had drugs period), Matthews (multiple crimes before she learned to obey the law), etc. Many of life’s lessons do not sink in and take the first time. If the record is completely expunged, then maybe remove but if it was dropped for other reasons that do not equate with “not guilty” i.e. plea deals, lack of prosecution, and the like, I am ok with the pictures being out there. You will see a lot of people reappear given time. Maybe America as a country needs to learn to be more forgiving and actually be a rehabilitation-oriented country instead of a punitive one. Then sites like these would not matter in the long run even if everyone was posted on it because we would be overall a better society in our dealings, interactions and hiring or people when they have demonstrated they are really better people.

    • http://www.seo-watch.net Doris

      It’s about privacy, Destitute American and has not much to do with free speech as the purpose is to extort money.
      To delete a profile costs money – so they make a deal and do not care about free speech anymore or transparency.
      In Europe these kind of web sites would not even survive 1 day on a web server, because they would be shut down by the government, because they ignore the Privacy law and they would be fined – thus they would be the ones who pay.

    • Joe

      Destitute,
      Quit being such a giant douche nozzle. You fail to take into account those individuals that have, in fact, done nothing wrong. Instead, because you don’t like the way things sometimes work out in the justice system, you want to let the mugshot maggots exact a penance and to hell with the innocents that get irreparably harmed in the process. The police make mistakes. Lots of them. Yet you’re willing to let innumerable people’s reputations be permanently damaged because, what… the “public has a right to know?” News flash, Sparky… Individuals have rights too.

      Welcome to the lowest common denominator, dirt bag.

  • Jeff

    <blockquote cite="A person’s arrest, even for a minor offense and/or for which the person was never convicted, is always relevant information to the individual performing the search.”>

    So, somebody that was wrongly arrested for whatever reason, should have that follow them around for the rest of their life? This guy sounds like a real charmer.

  • Leigh LaDuke

    Eight years ago I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit, and was found not guilty. Mugshots.com wants $395 to remove my arrest record from their site. My arrest is no longer listed on our official law enforcement website, so I think it’s nothing short of extortion that sites like Mugshots are using! It would cost me a small fortune to have my arrest record removed from all of the sites who operate under the freedom of information act, with no guarantee that other sites won’t pop up and try to extort even more money. Even though Mugshots website has the stand disclaimer that the arrest doesn’t equal conviction, it can still be injurious to one’s reputation. I hear, and understand, all of the concerns about public safety and am not dismissing those concerns. But I think that someone who has committed a crime and paid their debt to society through jail/prison time, restitution, etc., and are making efforts to rebuild and live a decent life, should be entitled to not having their mistake havering over them like a black cloud. if the offense was serious enough, one would think that a Google search would yield more than just what is contained in sites such as Mugshots. Let me also state that Google hasn’t restricted the search for the mugshots site. It is still very much accessible and names can then be searched on their site. So the information is still readily available, just not in your face when you Google a person’s name. I applaud Google for their willingness to stand against the extortionist sites.
    - Pastor Leigh LaDuke -

  • Joe Blow

    Please.

    “an enormous public safety blind spot that puts every person in the country at potential risk who performs a Google search on someone with a criminal history”

    ???

    How did the world ever exist before mugshots.com offered extortion as a remedy to those with a criminal history?

    In the context of prison and arrests, mugshots.com can bend over for google, those been through the “justice” system and the payment systems you’ve leveraged for criminal extortion purposes.

    JB.

  • Tom McCormack

    Poor Mark Epstein and the extortionists over at Mugshots.com.
    Now they can’t just sit around and wait for people to call them
    and offer $399 for mugshot removal.
    I guess that means they are going to have to go out and
    get a real job…maybe McDonalds or Taco Bell.

  • Kelly R

    Google is not God or the law. Censorship is just that, no wonder they support the Obama administration. The internet is the only place left for free speech. Now that is policed by the likes of Google. Why do we even need courts lets just have Google be judge and jury. What other public information is Google suppressing – Wake Up People.

    • http://trudoff.info trudoff.info

      This can be developed as the alternative.

    • Donna

      You need to learn what the meaning of Censorship is. It is not censorship if you write a crappy book and a publisher chooses not to publish it. It is not censorship if you create a crappy web site and Google chooses not to let it rank high in search.

      Censorship is what governments do, sometimes to “protect” the public i.e. not broadcasting obscenity, porn, etc. and sometimes to suppress information.

      There is no public right to see mug shots of people who have not been convicted of a crime.

    • http://ronaldbenoit@hsn.net eli

      oh give it a rest kelly……..you are the kind of snoop that we don’t want looking on google……..and employer can perform a “real” background check to see if a crime was ever charged or not……wake up people?? you are the one that needs to wake up……Google corrected what the courts were too lazy to do..if you are so nosy that you have to find out if your friends,co workers or family have been arrested – then get of your rump and march down to court house where the records are public…..otherwise, I hope you get arrested for something really stupid, like litering…….and see what your attitude is then ………………….

  • Dave

    I love how people are bringing up free speech. Let’s all remember that Google is a company, it’s not a public service and it’s not a government agency. Google has every right to make changes in it’s algorithm and if people don’t like it, they should use a competitor.

    In regards to this particular case, the companies publishing mugshots aren’t doing a public service either. If they were, they wouldn’t accept money to take the profiles down. Sleazy.

  • Robbie

    This is extortion, it shouldn’t be a matter for Google to police, it should be a criminal activity under international law. Blackmailing people to have them pay for the removal of this content is extortion plain and simple.

    The mugshots should not even be in the public domain. It serves absolutely no purpose to have them available to anyone who wants to see them. These should be reserved for criminal investigators, police agencies seeking suspects, and extraordinary cases where someone may be on the loose and requires identifying to the wider public.

    As for those screaming about Google and their power, I agree that it should be broken up under anti monopoly laws, but it is a business and not a government funded body so no one can suggest that they are damaging free speech. Google is a corporation, it has the right to control the information it delivers. It’s not morally or ethically right simply because of the power it has, not because it’s a fundamental right that they comply to public opinion.

    Google doesn’t have to comply to the ethical and moral opinions of the public, because it is not a government backed body. It’s a private business. It should be broken up because it has far too much power.
    The sites extorting money from people are criminals and should be prosecuted under international law.

  • K C

    This is one of the best things Google has done. It is not free speech to use the misfortune of others to make money.

  • http://www.mosesandrooth.com Andrew Moses

    I am a criminal defense attorney and have seen first hand how many people who were never convicted have been hurt by these sites. You not only see it for people arrested but you are also seeing these same types of sites for bankruptcies.

    • JackDM

      I agree Andrew. If you are interested in this type of information,and it is information that you NEED to be aware of, there are ways to get it. Some of the people who want to see it would think differently if it were their family member posted for the world to see.

  • https://www.searchen.com/ John Colascione

    Google has also caught innocent sites in this new algorithm change, for instance, White Pages websites that display personal information, albeit limited, including name, phone, address, etc..

  • http://jackscreativedesign.com Jackson

    You’re missing the point of the algorithm changes and the article. It’s not about what mugshots is about, it’s about the content on their site.

    Google has never been about censorship, and it’s not their job. What Google has and is concerned about is content. If you don’t have good content, then you should not have a good ranking in the search engine.

    Although, I will say, “Who is Google to decide what is good content?” Everyone has their opinion of what they consider good content. What I think is good and what you think is good may be two different spheres.

    What I like about the new algorithm is the sites with ads all over them (and no content) are now at the back of the search results, not at the beginning. I am now finding the relevant information I’m looking for on the front page instead of page 10 of the search results. Go Google…

    • Howard

      These website will get sued and most likely class action sued. If a person get arrested and is found not guiltily of their crime there mug shot can and should not be used against them. So if those companies who are extorting money from people who have done nothing wrong,
      Then they should be sue for damages to reputation and possible loss of job.

    • Get real

      Google should not support the extortion. Google can censor to any level, and must censor by federal law at some levels. It is Google’s business and reputation at stake, good or bad, it is up to Google, free enterprise works. Google makes money on everything Google, every site. Supporting the extortion by allowing the site makes Google a Co-Extortionist, just as guilty. It’s not about free speech, no innocents here, merely moving them down the list does not separate Google from the crime. Extortion is a crime, punishable under the law. The money can be easily followed and individuals can be held accountable, jailed and fined. Put their photos up and take no money to remove. We all can stop using Google based on our ethics, if you don;t like it, don;t Google.

    • http://www.seo-watch.net Doris

      Do NOT Agree!
      If you search now for PHP snippets better use Bing or Yahoo as Google returns Phyton, JavaScript, ASP, Java and two results for PHP – hmmmm – where is the improvement?
      Also there is a site in the U.K. escort section since month with no content all – it dropped now to page 2 but had it’s foothold on page 1 for a long, long time. So these facts make the content question which is so often referred to as “Google’s major focus” to a myth and joke.
      Google is rather killing it’s own company to try to kill SEO, as in U.S. Yahoo already bypassed Google in search amounts.
      This will happen in other continents – because: you have problems finding the things you want. You get dished up your old searches, it works just like bookmarks – no room obviously for new stuff.
      The stuff you really look for is too hard to find.

      It’s time for a change

  • Scott

    Absolutely, I agree with Google. Not promoting sites that extort others is the right thing to do. It has nothing to do with free speech.

  • Larry S. Jackson

    If Google can thwart the scum who profit from blackmail, then I support their effforts.

  • http://www.absolute-wood.com Rick

    So… mugshots.com is saying Google is suppressing free speech and putting the public at risk by giving these sites a low search ranking?

    Yet mugshots.com is also saying – “you’re a scumbag criminal, but if you give us $400, we’ll hide your profile from our site…

    Can you say hypocrite? Companies like this deserve punishment. I thought extortion was illegal…

  • Tim

    These sites are the contemporary equivalent of the stockades of yore. But rather than being displayed on a street, the accused offenders are exhibited in everyone’s home, office, cell phone, etc., everywhere in the world! Based solely on arrest records and photographs that sheriff’s departments, etc. are posting at the time of processing, the accused are held up for ridicule without any confirmation of guilt. This cannot be considered as enhancing our justice system, but as a way that opportunistic dirtbags and sociopaths can profit through extortion. Why are the photos posted on-line anyway, especially before guilt is established?

    One of the biggest markets for these trollers are young adults who make a big mistake. Then they shake down the parents for “peace of mind.” It’s a crime without a law.

  • JAG

    Yep, I have to agree with “taking them down”! No I don’t want criminals to get away. But let’s first determine who the guilty are!

  • drew

    I feel so bad for mugshots.com who have been taking advantage of people who paid their debts to society. Because of mugshots and similar companies, people are being defined for their past mistakes. Perhaps the smart people at google are on to something, since they don’t want to be liable for future damages to come. A reputable company like google doesn’t need that kind of web traffic. Google is in the business of helping people not extorting them. Too bad for mugshots, freedom of speech doesn’t apply to corporate America. Waaaaaahhh!!

  • Bonusclick

    Marc Epstein attorney for Mugshots.com and his son Ari Epstein, Both felons several times over for child sex abuse and selling drugs in school zones and much more, These guys did not even have the balls to post their own arrest records and they are serious felons and all the records are available through Florida. records. And folks never convicted for a simple traffic violation show up on the website of mugshots.com. These people are money grubbing extortionist style mobsters hiding in south Florida today and changing their phone numbers and moving to hide monthly where they live. What does this tell you about this type of people.
    Good job Google and I hope the law and all others follow suit.

    • chris

      This is all true information about the owners of mugshots. Furthermore the same family has started other companies that do the same thing in order extort individuals from multiple angles. Also if you notice, the individuals that get posted all have a common denominator. 99 percent of them are from Florida, Mug shots is taking advantage of a weak court records system in the Florida judiciary to extort money from innocent people. It would not surprise me if a class action law suit was in the process already.

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    Unfortunately, the fact is that our roads continue to remain as a death trap. More people die in road accidents than in war or disease.

  • Keith Lund

    Kudos to google for readjusting for the search engine gaming done by these extortionists.

    Now let’s get Bing to shape up. Since their image results are shared by yahoo they have pretty good reach even though bing’s usage rate is pretty low.

    Go to bing.com/images and start flagging results as Offensive. Hover over the pics, click on the flag to report mugshots from the sites.

    If enough people flag enough pics perhaps they’ll follow google’s lead.

    The best search strings to go for as of this writing:

    site:http://the-place-for-mugshots.com

    site:http://bustedmugshots.com

  • Keith Lund

    Dang, links didn’t come out right. Site is automatically parsing url from offensive sites.

    So, go to bing.com/images and paste in the text of the last two links, don’t click on them.

  • hya

    These companies should be forced to remove the mug shots for free. This is someone’s life – in some cases these people have been found innocent, case dismissed etc, and should not now be forced to pay their pictures removed. Is this how low people will go to make a living ? Take the mug shots down now !!!

  • Upset Stomach

    The mugshot algorithm via Google should work for all mugshot websites not just a couple and it should not have mattered where we live. Not even two weeks after the algorithm was released other sites like siterunning.info popped right up the ranks to pages 1 and two with a mugshot To boot on page 1 of google. Not convicted…..almost 12 years ago…yes Florida. Their partner sister company removearrest .com will be happy to take down for 150. How did the algorithm help???

  • http://ourmasterscamp.org Jake @ How to recover from drug addiction

    I think its awesome. I was one of those who benefited greatly. I used to be addicted to drugs and made a lot of terrible choices. If someone really wants to find out about that, they can… its not hard. But that was 10 years ago, and I have since changed my life to the point where I help people in addiction find hope and help. I’m sort of a public figure online because of my job, and had to pay these guys to pull down my pics just so they could make another site, and another. These people are scum bags and its not like the information is not still available, its just that people can’t profit over your misery like they once did. But one thing about a roach, it will always find another food source.

  • jose garcia atlanta

    arrested and found not guilty. then the vigilantes come out to exact punishment until the next day you read…….(Vigilante jailed for killing man he mistakenly thought was a pdophile.) can mugshot take this back? was this crime committed because of mug shot.com? who is to really say? when this occurs and it does happen..im suing, because i was arrested for burgulary found not guilty and my accuser never showed up to court. the DA dismissed after ten days in jail facing five years. The DA called it a mockery and waste of court time/ resources. i get a call that alerted me. so be very aware mugshot.com because your company has caused me harm. and libel. your company asked me for cash to take my picture down and even more to show that no crime was committed.

  • John Doe

    I didn’t even realize google did this until just now!! awesome! yes i’ve been in trouble a few times over my lifetime, and yes i was convicted. but we’re talking about misdemeanor (DUI’s and driving and suspendeds) and with the amount of mugshots sites out there (and newer sister sites popping up) it would of cost over a grand easily to remove them. when i recently searched my name and city and noticed the mugshots are no longer under google images (they used to be on the very top row) now even after scrolling down and click on ‘more images’ nowhere to be seen! Hat Tip google. I agree that information should be public information, but thats what the local city sheriff websites are for to search on.

  • Ronald Reginald Douglas

    Yes Google made the right call. These lowlife scammers should be tarred and feathered while podcast. Then the public can pay $400 a pop to have a bb pellet shot at a body part of their choosing of the owners and operators of these sites. That would be money well spent.

  • http://www.williamforesmantallahassee.com/ William Foresman

    Google promotes mugshot photos. Bing and Yahoo do not.