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Search giant says sorry over offensive Obama -

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Search giant says sorry over offensive Obama image

Shane McLeod reported this story on Thursday, November 26, 2009 12:22:00

ELEANOR HALL: Executives at the internet search giant Google have apologised over an offensive
picture of the US First Lady that appeared high on the list of its search results.

The picture was a photograph of Michelle Obama that was manipulated to give her the facial features
of a monkey.

It also shows how Google's search engine can be manipulated.

As Shane McLeod reports, it is an example of 'Google Bombing' where people hit certain web pages to
boost their ranking in a search.

SHANE MCLEOD: Sometimes Internet search engines help you find what you're looking for on the net
and sometimes they don't.

Until yesterday, if you went looking for pictures of Michelle Obama on Google's image search
engine, one of the top hits was offensive - a photograph of the First Lady that had been
manipulated into making her look like a monkey.

The image had floated around for a few weeks on the net before being boosted into Google's search
results.

The search engine put a link of its own at the top of the search page at pains to apologise for any
offence.

GOOGLE STATEMENT (voiceover): Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include
disturbing content, even from innocuous queries.

A site's ranking in Google's search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands
of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query.

SHANE MCLEOD: The results Google generates are based on a proprietary algorithm known as page rank.

Among the things it takes into account is the number of references a particular page gets from
other pages on the Internet. An industry has sprung up around what's known as search engine
optimisation, where owners of web pages try to boost their ranking.

It's been something businesses have done in pursuit of commercial returns and the same techniques
can be used for more nefarious purposes.

Andrew Jakubowicz is professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He also
administers a website, Cultural Diversity News.

He says containing offensive content is something search engines struggle to do.

ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ: When Google goes out it uses the search parameters but it can be programmed to
move things up and down the hierarchy for instance. And website optimisation, which is what this is
all about in the technical term, is about trying to fool Google into making it produce you at the
top of the list.

So it's a bit of a, and for web savvy racists it's a sort of a bit of a game really, how you can go
about setting your parameters up so that Google is tricked into pushing you at the top of the pile.

SHANE MCLEOD: Do you think that's what's happened here?

ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ: Well it sounds to me as though whoever set up the parameters for this particular
issue knew exactly what they were doing and, well Google hardly fell into it because it's not a
sensate object, or sensate being. But there's no doubt that they managed to get those sorts of
hits.

SHANE MCLEOD: Google says it doesn't remove pages from its search results just because someone
complains about them but it does say it will remove pages that breach webmaster guidelines or if
they have to do so by law.

If you search for Michelle Obama today the offensive image doesn't appear but it doesn't take too
much more to find the image with slightly different search text.

Professor Jakubowicz says it's something that not just search engines are struggling to deal with.

ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ: The quantum of stuff out there on the Internet is just vast and it's growing
exponentially, like it's unknowable. One person can't know what's out there anymore. They haven't
been able to for years.

So the possibilities for this sort of stuff to happen are endless. If you know where you're going
and what you're doing on the Internet you can find every form of information or material that is
offensive or disgusting.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Professor Andrew Jakubowicz from the University of Technology in Sydney,
speaking to Shane McLeod.