Google Removes Offensive Obama Image; Was It Justified?

Saying the host site was serving malware to users, Google has removed a controversial photo of First Lady Michelle Obama from Google Image Search. The site itself, however, remains listed in Google web search results without any visible malware warning.

Welcome to the murky world of free speech, politics, and Google.

It began last week, when Search Engine Roundtable pointed out a racist image showing as the number one result in Google Image Search for the term [Michelle Obama]. The image was apparently removed yesterday.

In a Google Web Search Help Forum thread discussing the image, a Google employee named Jem explained yesterday that there are three reasons why Google would remove content from its index:

“… 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.

(emphasis mine)

An offensive photo of Michelle Obama doesn’t obviously violate any of those three guidelines on its own. Google’s press office has yet to respond to our request for an official statement. But in the comments of today’s Search Engine Roundtable post, Google’s Matt Cutts says the site was violating Google’s webmaster guidelines:

“… 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.”

Sure enough, a [site:] search for the site in Google Images produces no results. But the malware sweep apparently didn’t reach the main web search index. As Michael Gray points out on SER, the site itself is still listed in search results with no malware warning.


Making matters slightly murkier is that, as you see above, the image was hosted on Google’s own blogging platform.

Google’s critics will no doubt call this favoritism toward the Obama administration and be quick to point out the company’s ties to Washington, DC. Google CEO Eric Schmidt endorsed Obama for president, later campaigned with him, and then turned down an offer to join the administration. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Google was the fourth-largest corporate contributor to Obama’s presidential campaign. And we’ve reported about a few notable Google employees who’ve left to work for the Obama administration.

On the other hand, we’ve also written more than once about potential friction between Google and the Obama administration. Christine Varney, the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust has been quoted as saying that Google “has acquired a monopoly in internet online advertising.” See our stories Will Obama Be The Downfall Of Google? and Google’s Anti-Trust Problem Appears Very Real for more.

If, in fact, the blog hosting the offensive image of Michelle Obama also hosts malware, Google’s removal of the image seems justified in light of the company’s stated policies. But, in that case, a malware warning should also be placed on the site itself in Google’s main search results. Until that happens — and perhaps even after — Google’s critics are likely to question the decision to remove this image.

While today’s episode may be a case of Google looking for an excuse to remove an image from the index, it should be said that the same exact image of the First Lady can be found on other sites and remains in Google Image Search because those sites apparently don’t meet the criteria for content removal. There are similarly offensive images of the President himself that can be found quite easily in Google Image Search, too.

About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Michael Gray

    ok digging deeper into this, that site uses a lot of hotlinked images, one of the archive pages which had a hotlinked image from another site happened to be a malware site and it triggered the typical google malware warning interstitial.

    The actual page with the offending image isn’t hotlinked, still exists and has the image on it’s page

    hxxp:// (broken link format on purpose in case there are any real malware problems).

    Technically the site did have malware problem, and technically it was on a archive page where the image was …. but it sure looks a lot like google looking for a reason to pull the image they can hide behind … there’s no denying that having that image as the #1 result for michelle obama doesnt reflect well on google.

  • Bill Gomez

    I saw the image and it was disgraceful… Really disgusting. That said, it does seem like there may have been some selective censorship here. You can easily find equally distasteful and offensive photos of a former First Lady — Laura Bush (safe search off, third row down, last image on the right in my search)

    Without getting into politics, I’m an agnostic on all things political anyway, it sure seems like the Goog might have been looking for any excuse to remove the Michelle Obama image and found a convenient excuse with the \malware\ situation.

    And you’re right, a skeptic could certainly raise the question whether Goog’s exceptionally close relationship with this White House may have had something to do with it. Google needs to be really careful here… Unilaterally removing distasteful images (and I stipulate again that it was shockingly distasteful) and then looking for the justification after the fact (malware) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence about Google’s \neutrality\.

    If Google’s going to be neutral, they need to be neutral — even if that means having to wade through offensive crap posted by racist idiots.

  • Helen Stepchuk

    Didn’t see the picture, but I think there should be more control over things like this! Of course it’s almost impossible to do, but I think it was a good move that Google removed the pic…

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