Google Algorithm Update Targets Slander

A New York Times (NYT) report states that Google is planning on changing its algorithm to demote websites that publish unverified or slanderous claims about other people.

This change is said to be a direct response to recent New York Times articles documenting how websites build businesses off preying on victims of slander.

The NYT paints a picture of how this industry works:

“For many years, the vicious cycle has spun: Websites solicit lurid, unverified complaints about supposed cheaters, sexual predators, deadbeats and scammers. People slander their enemies. The anonymous posts appear high in Google results for the names of victims. Then the websites charge the victims thousands of dollars to take the posts down.”

Google’s algorithm changes, which are planned for the coming months, will prevent these predatory websites from surfacing in search results when a person’s name is searched for.

In addition, Google has a concept called “known victims” that aims to protect victims of slander from being targeted multiple times.

“When people report to the company that they have been attacked on sites that charge to remove posts, Google will automatically suppress similar content when their names are searched for. “Known victims” also includes people whose nude photos have been published online without their consent, allowing them to request suppression of explicit results for their names.”

Google Says it Was Unaware Repeated Problems

According to the NYT, Google was unaware of an ongoing problem with “slander-peddling” websites in its search results until it was brought to the company’s attention this year.

Previously, policies were in place that enabled individuals to request the removal slanderous pages from search results. Successful removals led to a demotion signal for sites publishing said content.

However, the company was unaware of issues with repeated harassment that continued even after content was removed as requested.

Pandu Nayak, Vice President of Google Search, confirms this in a blog post where he states the NYT managed to highlight the search engine’s limitations.

Nayak goes on to state what the algorithm changes aim to accomplish:

“To help people who are dealing with extraordinary cases of repeated harassment, we’re implementing an improvement to our approach to further protect known victims. Now, once someone has requested a removal from one site with predatory practices, we will automatically apply ranking protections to help prevent content from other similar low quality sites appearing in search results for people’s names. We’re also looking to expand these protections further, as part of our ongoing work in this space.”

Search is Never a Solved Problem

The upcoming algorithm changes, and creation of the “known victims” policy, will help solve the problem. Though Google admits it won’t be a perfect solution.

David Graff, head of Google’s trust and safety policy team, tells the NYT:

“I doubt it will be a perfect solution, certainly not right off the bat. But I think it really should have a significant and positive impact. We can’t police the web, but we can be responsible citizens.”

Nayak echoes a similar sentiment in his blog post, stating: “Search is never a solved problem, and there are always new challenges we face as the web and the world change.”

Google is currently testing the algorithm changes, with contractors doing side-by-side comparisons of the new and old search results.

The NYT says it has been doing its own tests with a previously compiled list of 47,000 people who have been written about on slander sites. After searching for several people whose results previously returned slanderous articles, Google’s changes are already noticeable.

In some cases the damaging content disappeared from the first page of results. In other cases the content had mostly disappeared except for content from a newly launched slander site.

It sounds like the changes are working as intended. Of course, sites that do not specialize in preying on victims of slander will have nothing to worry about with regards to these algorithm updates.

This does throw a wrench into the works of the reputation management industry, however, as Google will have stronger safeguards in place to prevent reputation-damaging content from surfacing for people’s names.

We’ll see over time how effective these changes end up being. It’s interesting to learn that Google can be pressured into making algorithm changes when mainstream publications draw attention to known issues.

Source: The New York Times