Google Removed Negative Search Result Michelle Obama, Should They Have?

Nov 19, 2009 • 8:22 am | comments (19) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google Search Engine

A week or so ago, we reported that a search in Google images for Michelle Obama returned a racist image. The image was offensive, racist and has been removed from the search results - which is what I was hoping for. But Google responded to the thread and explained that they normally do not change the search results unless:

(1) It violates our Webmaster Guidelines (2) If Google believes they are required to do so by law (3) Or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the image

I am not sure if this image fell under any of those three conditions. Google was not clear if it did, nor did they specifically say which this case fell under. I don't think it violated the Webmaster Guidelines, I don't think the image was "illegal," and I doubt the webmaster asked to have the image taken down. I can be wrong on all of these points, but I am not sure.

Here is Google's full response:

If you recently used Google Images to search for the term [ Michelle Obama ], you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the image in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google.

As with Google Web Search, ranking in Google Images results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query.

Individual citizens and public interest groups do periodically urge us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Although Google reserves the right to address such requests individually, Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results, or images from our Google Images results, simply because the content is in very poor taste or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the image, page (or its site) violates our Webmaster Guidelines, if we believe we are required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the image.

We apologize for the upsetting nature of the experience you had using Google Images and appreciate your taking the time to inform us about it. We will continue to improve the product based on your feedback to make sure that users find the most useful, relevant images through Google Images.


Am I missing something? Why did Google take it down? Did the White House force them to by making it a legal matter? Maybe the site was indeed in violation of the webmaster guidelines? The site itself is still live, so I am not sure.

Google is clear that they do not remove offensive, racist or anti-semitic from the search results. I am just confused in this case. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely happy the result was removed - but was this only done because she is the First Lady?

Forum discussion continued at Google Web Search Help.

Update: Google Buys Add For Offensive Michelle Obama Image Result.

Previous story: Daily Search Forum Recap: November 18, 2009


Corey Eulas

11/19/2009 01:44 pm

The blob that is 'Google' through Obama a post-inaugural party after his win. There is politics in play here - most likely. Regardless of current politics, I know there is small beef between Obama + Google (, there is still politics to be played. In my personal opinion, the image should be removed. But funny is if you turn safe-search OFF and search "obama", you turn up a picture of Obama smoking a bong. It's stories like this that lead us to say how >far< involved will Google go?


11/19/2009 02:11 pm

That does "open a crack in the door". Many software companies could argue that Google should remove "cracked" illegal software version links from the text results for example, and on, and on... And I agree with you that on one hand it is GREAT to see them remove such a highly offensive image like this, but then, where do they draw the line and who determines the line? The fact that they do reserve "the right to address such requests [to remove images] individually", does give them an out. And it is not unrealistic to come to the conclusion (as you suggest)that they were "persuaded" by the current administration to remove the image. And this could go hand in hand with lobbying efforts. Also, many people don't understand Google search results and the need for blind algorithm-based neutrality. They just want something removed and know Google has the power to do it.

Anthony Hereld

11/19/2009 02:47 pm

I'm sure that Google took the image down for political reasons. The powers that be are likely liberal-minded, and took issue with anything related to Obama being cast in a negative light. It's the same reason why wiki entries for Bill Ayers were altered during the campaign. It's the same reason why search results for podcasts in iTunes point to those with a liberal agenda, and why the New York Times continues to lose credibility day after day.

Matt Cutts

11/19/2009 03:35 pm

Hey Barry, feel free to verify with the official PR folks, but that page did violate our webmaster guidelines because it was serving malware to users, which violates the quality guideline that says "Don't create pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware." I believe that the Images team did a general anti-malware sweep.

Barry Schwartz

11/19/2009 03:41 pm

Appreciate the heads up Matt. I did send an email to PR to ask earlier today.


11/19/2009 04:05 pm

ok so if you removed the images for malware why does the site still show up for a site: search with no malware warning

Barry Schwartz

11/19/2009 04:13 pm

Seems like all images from that site have been delisted


11/19/2009 05:20 pm

lets go with the idea that a site is using images to deliver the malware, is google going to say hmm there's some malware on the images, lets remove them but the rest of the site we totally still trust that and won't put up the malware interstitial. Maybe they did remove the whole site they cleaned it up and thats why it's back, but the kept the images out ... still doesnt seem right None of these answers make any sense ... it's like judge judy says "don't pee on my leg then tell me it's raining". What does make sense is google doesnt want to look stupid showing a racially charged innapropriate image for the first lady of the united states and removed it. To make it look less obvious they removed all the images from the site. I'm sure we'll get some causation correlation defense ... but I say use your brains and some common sense and which possibility makes the most sense to you.


11/19/2009 05:44 pm

Google should do what it wants to do. Use a Google alert if you want to track something or someone. GO Google! I agree with the negative content being removed about our First Lady of the United States.


11/19/2009 06:05 pm

If this was brought down for Malware, then fine, I completely would understand a decision like that or at least a warning if you clicked on the result. However, I don't condone just having Google act as a morale compass. That's what Safe Search functions are for.

Israeli Guy

11/19/2009 09:15 pm

Remember the Google/ controversy? Back then, Google tried to explain that Google results are automatically ranked by computer algorithms. I hate racism (from any direction and towards any ethnic or religious group) but this case stinks with hypocrisy.

Jimmy R

11/20/2009 10:34 am

It is complete crap even though the image is obviously offensive - but isn’t there tens of thousands of offensive images on the web? Isn’t the web about freedom of speech? Where does this end? - it means that every time there is something even remotely controversial in the listings there will be demands for Google to pull it. Big brother Google yet again deciding what we see and don’t see - DO no evil my eye.


11/20/2009 10:36 am

@Matt Cutts - We dont believe you Matt! :-)


11/20/2009 01:34 pm

@ Johnny: I'll second that. I never saw the image, so can't comment on how offensive it might have been. I used "might" as what some call offensive is simply amusing to others - and because I didn't see it. But lets face it, Google have been censoring their results for as long as I can think. Lets not even bring China into the equation. Why would this now be any different. If you'll appease one government, why not another? I'll also agree with Graywolf, remove the images but nothing else? It just doesn't make sense. In all fairness, this is one that Google won't really win. Either they censor the hell out of everything and remove anything that could be close to being offensive, or they include everything. I guess you can't be all things to everyone. The concerning bit is that they aren't and once you start picking and choosing you really headed down a slippery slope.

Bill Sebald

11/20/2009 05:34 pm

I've always considered webmaster guidelines to be ambiguous, loose guidelines that can be interpreted as need be by Google. It's not contractual. There's millions of posts about Google not following their own guidelines to a "T". They probably never will. Maybe it was malware, but maybe it was Google wanting to clean up the representation of their engine for a very popular keyword search! They're in business to serve all users - from light users to power users. They're a business, and this isn't surprising. Are they censoring? Yeah, probably. Google's probably not trying to be the next Joseph Pulitzer, unfortunately.


11/25/2009 06:08 am

I guess popular pressure and bad press worked. Racist images, as abhorrent as they are, don't fit any of G's published ban guidelines (one can see hundreds of indexed neo-nazi sites.) Avast didn't go off when I visited the site so I don't understand the malware angle either. Bottom line, Google did what's PC to do, they are a business after all.


11/25/2009 09:30 am

Who says google 'took the image down' surely the just adjusted their search algorithm to make this image not relevant for searches for michelle obama. That way they are actually improving search results rather than censoring content. If I start a site called "" and it doesn't appear at number 1 for searches for coca cola, that's not google censoring me, the site simply isn't relevant.


11/26/2009 06:57 pm

Good work. I hope in future racist and other offensive content will also be removed. And Google known as a more safer place.


12/18/2009 08:08 am

Currently residing in Sweden, I just search and its still the first image. Althou I dont think its the origional site cuz the article speaks on the matter.

blog comments powered by Disqus