Did Google Make The Right Call With This Algorithm Change?

    October 17, 2013
    Chris Crum

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