Google Explains Offensive Michelle Obama Image in Search Results

Google uses ad space to explain why offensive image tops search results.

November 24, 2009, 11:46 AM

Nov. 24, 2009— -- If you use Google to search for a picture of First Lady Michelle Obama, brace yourself for an unpleasant surprise.

Depending on your Web browser's settings, the first image to surface in Google Image's search engine could be an offensive image of the First Lady ostensibly photo-edited to resemble a monkey.

Originally spotted by Search Engine Roundtable, after a Google user reported it to a Google Web search help forum, the offensive image was apparently hosted by the Web site

Google last week removed the image saying the site hosting the image was serving malware to visitors. But, the photo has turned up again, this time on another Web site, a "hot girls" blog.

To explain why the offensive image tops Google Image's search results, the Mountain View-based company has posted a message in the advertising space above the image which reads, "Sometimes our search results can be offensive. We agree. Read more."

When you click on the corresponding link an even lengthier message appears.

"Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google," said a message from "The Google Team."

"Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site's ranking in Google's search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query," the statement continued. "The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results."

Individuals and public interest groups periodically ask Google to remove links or change search results, the company said, but the integrity of its search results is an extremely important priority.

Google Will Remove Pages if They Violate Guidelines or if Required by Law

Google added that it will remove pages from results if they violate the company's Webmaster Guidelines or if they are required to do so by law.

"We apologize if you've had an upsetting experience using Google," the message concludes. "We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results."

Barry Schwartz, editor of Search Engine Roundtable, points out on his site that Google offers a similar explanation in the ad space next to search results for "jew," which for a time returned the hate site "Jewwatch" as the highest-ranked site, according to a 2004 post on the Anti-Defamation League's Web site.

Given how powerful Google and other search engines are at driving traffic to Web sites, managers of some sites try to game the system by hiding additional text in a Web site's source code or presenting different content to site visitors than to search engines. But those so-called "black hat" tactics could lead Google to block or otherwise punish a site.

Danny Sullivan, editor of the Web site Search Engine Land, said examples like this highlight the search giant's imperfections.

"When Google tries to rank anything it uses a recipe called a search algorithm," he said, adding that the algorithm considers how people are linking to content across the Web, the words surrounding an image, the words in a file name and other factors.

"They try to cook all this stuff up to come up with what they think is the best result, but in the end they're just guessing," Sullivan said.

A situation like this might prompt Google to look at the factors driving the image to the top of the search results and tweak their recipe.

Sullivan also pointed out that users who have turned their "SafeSearch" setting to "off" might not see the offensive image because the setting allows more images (and more highly-ranked images) to populate the search results.

The "SafeSearch" option allows users to filter explicit sexual content and remove it from search results. The "strict" setting filters both image and ordinary Web search, the "moderate" setting removes the most explicit images from only image search results. Turning the "SafeSearch" setting off results in totally unfiltered searches.

Sullivan also noted that in 2006 Google used ad space when search results offended another political figure: George W. Bush.

Thanks to a high-tech prank, when a user typed "miserable failure" into the Google search box, the top result was President Bush's official White House biography.

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