Stale & Split Image Databases Fuel Google Conspiracy Theories

A post at AnandTech raises concerns that Google Images fails to find pictures of US soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. A conspiracy? In reality, just a failure of freshness on Google's part.

After the post was discussed at Slashdot, Google cofounder Sergey Brin sent word via Slashdot that Google was embarrassed to say its image database just hadn't been updated recently.

John Battelle summarizes more in his Google Image Search: Updated Only Twice a Year? post. While accepting Google's explanation, he wondered how the images that were there before could go missing. Others at Slashdot wondered as well. So did I.

Sure, information comes and goes on the web all the time. But for there to be no pictures at all for someone like Lynndie England, as this Google Image search shows? That seems odd, especially when the same search at Yahoo Image Search has plenty of examples (before forewarned, the link brings up several graphic and shocking pictures).

OK, Yahoo Image Search just recently got updated, as we covered two weeks ago: Yahoo Announces Size Increase to Image Database. But even if Google isn't as fresh, as it now readily admits, that still doesn't explain how the pictures that were once in there are now gone.

Answer? Google News. Google tells me that Google News has its own image search database that flows into Google Images. So when you search on Google Images, you're searching both the Google Images picture database (the stale one, currently about six months out of date) and the Google News image database.

Google won't say how long images stay in that Google News image database. I'd guess something like one to two weeks. That helps explain why a Google Images search for Lynndie England or Abu Ghraib might have brought up different results two weeks ago.

In October, Lynndie England gave birth. News stories about that may have brought pictures of her into the Google News database -- and thus into Google Images. Similarly, sidebar stories on the Abu Ghraid tortures or any other stories like this that may have hit Google news would have done the same. But as that news became old, those pictures fell out of Google News -- and out of Google Images.

The Google Images staleness prompted Yahoo's Jeremy Zawodny to suggest Google might want to outsource image search results from Yahoo. That's unlikely, but Gary Price does give you some fresh image search alternatives here.