Should Google take more responsibility for offensive content?


The national newspaper websites are awash today with reports on Google’s refusal to remove a racially offensive image of Michelle Obama.

The image in question depicts the first lady with simian features and is currently appearing as the top result in Google image searches for “Michelle Obama”.

In reaction to numerous complaints, Google took out the following advert, which has appeared often at the top of the results page today:

Google's ad above the offensive Michelle Obama search results page

Were this notice and a brief statement sufficient, or should Google take further action and block the distasteful image?

The official line

A statement issued by Google has clarified that the image will remain, although it does include an apology to anyone that the image offended:

“…we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it… We apologize if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google. We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results.”

Big decisions

It’s a difficult question, of course. No-one wants over-regulated search results and if Google removed this image, surely it would have to follow suit in other cases? This could easily spiral out of control and lead to unsatisfactory and uncomprehensive search results for us all in the future. It could also significantly impact upon search engine optimisation techniques if taken too far.

It would be incredibly difficult for Google to decide where it should draw the line. How many people would need to find an image offensive or distasteful for it to be ruled “unsuitable” for certain search results?

Current restrictions

Google does remove certain images from its search results if it is required to do so by law. However, since the site featuring the Michelle Obama image is permissible and the White House has declined to comment on the matter so far, it seems that it will certainly remain in the SERPs.

So what do you think – has Google done the right thing in standing its ground on the issue, or should it take more control and further regulate its search results?


The Guardian is reporting that the owner of the blog in question has removed the image. However, it still remains in the image search results, and presumably will do so until the blog is next crawled by Google.

*Update 2 – 1st December 2009*

Google seems to have been listening after all. It now gives you the opportunity to report images, even when displayed on normal web search – not just image search – pages.

Google image reporting

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