Google is kind of anal about profile pictures. We already knew this, but it has been confirmed with a new post from MG Siegler on his personal blog.
He tells the story about how Google deleted his profile photo, which featured Siegler flipping off the camera. Google deleted it, he re-uploaded it, and they deleted it again. Since then, he has re-uploaded it with a Google+ logo over the finger, as pictured below:
“My problem isn’t so much with the fact that I couldn’t have a profile picture of myself giving everyone the finger — which I can and do on Twitter and elsewhere — it’s that no one bothered to tell me or warn me before they just went into my account and deleted the picture,” writes Siegler. “What if this was the only place I had stored the picture?”
“Bigger picture: this seems like a ridiculous thing for Google to be policing,” he adds. “At first, they were all about ensuring that everyone was using their real name on Google+. After a shit storm about why that was stupid, they backed off. They should back off here as well because, honestly, who gives a shit? If my profile picture offends people, let them un-Circle me or whatever.”
Why Google gives a shit: just like Google+ itself, Google profiles have a lot to do with search - the one area where Google absolutely cannot fail.
Earlier this year, we were setting up Google’s authorship markup for our writers here at WebProNews. More background on what this is here. One of our writers, Josh Wolford, happened to have the following image as his Google Profile pic at the time:
He was a Zombie for Halloween, and he liked the picture (presumably, he still does), so he had it as his profile picture.
So, when we set up authorship for Google, Josh received a message from Google’s Sagar Kamdar shortly thereafter, requesting that he switch the picture. Google wanted more of just a regular headshot, from what I gather, at least for authors, because they appear in search results, as an indicator of trust. The thinking is, as I understand it, that if you get a bunch of weird and/or offensive pictures coming up in search results it reflects poorly on the quality of these search results, even if the content is just fine.
The concept is debatable, but this appears to be Google’s line of thinking. I’ve reached out to Kamdar for further comment, and will update accordingly.
Update: Josh dug up the message for me. Here's what Kamdar said:
"As a quick thumbnail, I'm a PM on the Google Search team responsible for our authorship launch."
"We noticed you've set things up correctly on your end. However, while we're in this limited testing, we're trying to make sure that we've got the best author pictures we can get--is there any way you could have a non-zombie picture for your profile?"
So, perhaps moving beyond the "limited testing phase" this won't be as much of an issue, but after the Siegler's story, I have to wonder.
Now, in Josh’s case, Google didn’t simply delete his picture, but he also wasn’t making a gesture that many people consider obscene, like flipping the camera off.
This may not be exactly the same thing as what happed in Siegler’s case. In fact, Siegler shares a comment he got from Google’s Alex Joseph, who said:
As the first point of interaction with a user’s profile, all profile photos on Google+ are reviewed to make sure they are in line with our User Content and Conduct Policy. Our policy page states, “Your Profile Picture cannot include mature or offensive content.” Your profile photo was taken down as a violation of this policy. If you have further questions about the policies on Google+ you can visit http://www.google.com/intl/en/+/policy/content.html,or click the “Content Policy” link located in the footer of Google+ pages.
So while these cases may be slightly different, they both point to a larger point about the image Google wants its profiles to represent.
Siegler is an author. He writes content for the web (and often popular content at that). I don't know for certain whether he has Google's authorship markup set up or not, though Google may have deleted his picture either way.
On the web, everyone is an author, potentially. All you have to do is add the markup, connect it to your Google Profile, and you can be considered an author too, and try to boost your credibility with Google, which could help you in search.
For Google, search is still the company’s bread and butter, even while it offers so many other products. Google has been rigorously launching algorithm updates all year with the sole goal of improving the quality of search results. Authorship, as it relates to search, is another factor for improving quality, and establishing trust and authority.
But again, the censorship of Profile photos is a debatable practice when it comes to authority and trust. I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that MG Siegler has become one of the more authoritative voices in tech journalism, and just because he is holding up his middle finger in his profile pic, that doesn’t change. Isn’t your profile part of how you wish to represent yourself on the web? If this is the kind of image Siegler (or Wolford) wishes to present for himself, why isn’t he allowed to do so?
Well, it is Google’s web property, so they do get to make the rules. It wouldn’t be the first time people disagreed with one of Google’s policies.