Google’s Matt Cutts has lent his personal blog to the Google Images search team so they could debunk a rumor that Google censored an image of an Egyptian football player, Mohammad Aboutrika, stripping off his team jersey during the African Cup Of Nations to show a "Sympathize With Gaza" T-shirt underneath. No censoring, says Google — it was just a problem with Google Images being stale. I can totally believe that explanation. It’s just embarrassing that it’s the same explanation Google gave when a similar question over Google Images came up in 2004. Over four years later, you’d expect the image freshness issues to have been resolved by now.
Let’s go backwards, then we’ll come up to date. In November 2004, after the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal erupted, people went looking for images on Google Images. Pictures weren’t to be found, making some such as Slashdot wonder if censorship was involved.
No censorship, Google said. It passed along a message from no less than Sergey Brin himself on the matter:
In short, There is no censorship here. We are embarassed [sic] that our image index is not updated as frequently as it should be. Expect a refresh in the near future.
In the meantime, you can just search on Google Web Search for [abu graib photos] [abu graib photos] [google.com] to get plenty of what you are looking for.
Google Images was out of date, it turned out — several months out of date. But that fueled even more questions. How come the pictures WERE showing up there, then disappeared, as John Battelle wondered:
I don’t quite understand how things that were once there (according to those on the thread mentioned above) fell out.
I followed up on that aspect with Google at the time, and the explanation was that Google News and Google Images have their own separate databases. However, what’s in the Google News images database can also be found in Google Images. The Abu Ghraib pictures from Google News were showing up in Google Images for the time period Google News keeps images stored (Google never told me how long this was, but I figured for maybe a week or two). Once the images were dropped from Google News, there was a lag until Google Images itself actually stored them.
Now to the recent post from Google:
It turns out this image was difficult to find on images.google.com for the first few days after the match, and the story that’s gathered steam is that Google removed it. Some outlets said that this was under pressure from the Israeli government.
The reason for the delay in the image showing up on Google Images was that it can take a few days between when an image appears and when it’s crawled by the Googlebot, as explained here. It’s there now – you can find several copies of the image on a search for [Aboutrika] or [Aboutrika Gaza] quite easily.
OK, first it sounds like Google News still has a separate images database (which is why the pictures were there) but that Google Images no longer taps into it at all. If not, you wonder why. You’d think Google would know at this point that people are going to turn to Google Images for news image-related content. Heck, over at Ask.com, you can do searches there and even get in the right-hand column "News Image" matches coming up.
Second — I know Google Images doesn’t have a blog, but Google itself does – and this post belongs there, not on Matt’s personal blog. That’s part of what the Google Blog is supposed to be doing, so repost this over there, Google.
To conclude, over three years later, the "we’re just behind" explanation doesn’t work so well. No, I don’t think things are being censored. But now Google takes a second strike over the issue of image censorship for exactly the same reason.
For the record, I thought it was worth checking the other search engines. Yahoo has one image here; Microsoft here, though the image has been removed and shows a broken image placeholder. Ask shows nothing. Also, when the image wasn’t showing at Google, it also wasn’t showing at Yahoo, for at least one person who bothered to check. While Google may have looked bad for being stale, it was hardly alone.