As previously reported, Google announced the launch of Penguin 2.0 on Friday, but that’s not the only algorithmic change the search giant has reportedly pushed out. Sometime late last week, they also pushed an update to demote mugshot sites that charge people to have their images removed.
This is a pretty interesting story. The New York Times published an in-depth look at such sites, speaking to a variety of parties, including a guy who runs one of them, some who have been negatively impacted by them, an SEO, and spokespeople from Google, MasterCard and PayPal. It’s definitely worth a read.
The basic gist is that there are a bunch of sites out there that make money by gathering mugshots (which are in the public domain), and then getting 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.
The sites charge money to have the damaging content removed – sometimes up to $400 – and even when one pays one site, the same content is likely on a bunch of other sites. This is possibly one reason why Google actually acted on this.
When the Times first reached out to Google, a spokesperson told them that “with very narrow exceptions, we take down as little as possible from search.”
This is more in line with what you’d expect from Google. The company is frequently asked to take down search results by people who feel their reputations are being damaged, but always resists, until they’re legally obligated to do so.
After a couple of days, however, the Times got another statement from the same spokesperson who said he was unaware of certain efforts at the compny:
“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.”
The Times says it learned that Google worked even faster than expected on this, and introduced the algorithm change on Thursday.
“The effects were immediate: on Friday, two mug shots of Janese Trimaldi, which had appeared prominently in an image search, were no longer on the first page,” reports the Times’ David Segal.
This is a pretty big moment for reputation management because (as mentioned), Google doesn’t typically respond. Clearly, the company felt that these sites were violating its guidelines, and acted accordingly.
It will be interesting to see if any other types of sites were affected unintentionally. With the latest Penguin update launching so close to this, we may never know.