Google And The Obscene Chester Guide

In February, Google was asked to remove a page that appeared to provide information aimed at pedophiles. The search engine finally relented, determining that the material was illegal. Should it have removed the page? Yes. For legal reasons? It was a handy excuse, but the correct answer was simply because it was a poor result for the query it appeared for.

The story below is assembled from comments I made about the case in the Search Engine Report for March and April 2003. The comments were associated in relation to articles from other sources about the case. I’ve assembled them all here into this article for easy reading.

The story began when a web designer in the English city of Chester did a search for “chester guide” and was shocked to find “Chester’s guide to: Picking up little girls” listed as the second result, as explained in this February 2003 article from the Cheshire Chronicle. The content of that page, which I saw in following up on the article, was pretty disgusting. However, it did not appear illegal under UK law. That means when Google was asked initially to remove the site from its listings, the search engine responded that this was something it wouldn’t do.

A second Cheshire Chronicle article documents that after a reader campaign by Chester’s local paper, Google still hadn’t dropped the page by mid-February. One reader got an official Google response that said, “Only an administrator can, by including code that blocks our robots or placing a request with us, prevent his/her page from being listed.” That wasn’t correct at all. Google can and does pull pages from its index for various reasons, without administrator consent.

When I followed up on the second article, the page was no longer listed in Google at all — not just in response to a search for “chester’s guide” but even in a search to specifically see if Google carries the page in its index. About a week later, it emerged that Google decided the site was illegal and yanked the listing.

Despite this, the page remained on the web, of course — that’s not something Google can control. And since it’s on the web, any other search engine might find it. That’s why it was in the indexes at Inktomi and AltaVista, in late February 2003. But it didn’t rank well for “chester guide” and probably other innocent searches that people might do, so those two search engines escaped the wrath that came down upon Google.

In March 2003, Seth Finkelstein followed up on the situation, in his Chester’s Guide to Molesting Google article (and The Register was unfair to say that he fudged the results in researching the article. As Finkelstein correctly explains, he simply searched in a way to quickly show that the page did exist in the indexes of other search engines).

Finkelstein found that the page apparently wasn’t serious. Instead, it was one of many examples of sick humor being offered by the hosting web site. By this time, the page in question also gained a disclaimer saying “this is humour, but not for the sensitive.” This was not on the page during the time the debate raged.

Despite the new development, the debate still should not have been over whether the page should be pulled or not, for reasons legal or otherwise. The question really was, should this page have been top-ranked for “chester guide” in Google?

The answer is quite simply, no. It’s not at all what the vast majority of searchers on that term would have expected. Those going to the page — supposedly humorous or not — would have been exposed to some pretty disgusting reading.

The correct answer in this situation would have been for Google to simply have adjusted things so that the page did not rank well for this particular search. Google is loathe to do things like this. Nevertheless, it would have been the right thing to do. The citizens of Chester would have had their concerns addressed, the vast majority of searchers would have benefited from the change, and anti-censorship campaigners like Finkelstein would be appeased to some degree knowing that the page had not been outright dropped.

Ironically, a search for “chester guide” now brings up Finkelstein’s article about the controversy, in the exact space where the page in question had been before. That pretty much assures that for the near future, Chester the city will continue to be associated with this page. Moreover, in this case, it now becomes completely relevant for Finkelstein’s article to appear for that search, since it documents the controversy at Google about that phrase.

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