It is being widely reported that a recent update to Google’s search algorithm has resulted in a major demotion of ranking for websites that republish arrest and mugshot information online.
According to a recent New York Times article, there are over 80 websites that reproduce mugshots from police and sheriff’s office websites, post them online, then charge up to several hundred dollars to remove the pictures. There have even been news reports suggesting collusion and shared ownership between the mugshot and removal websites, so if an individual pays to have a mugshot deleted from one site, he or she may find his image appearing on multiple other websites. And once these sites find someone willing to pay for the privilege of having their mugshot removed, they become a prime target for further exploitation.
Critics, even ardent free speech advocates, have lambasted the mugshot website trend which takes advantage of broad public disclosure laws to post personal information about individuals that are arrested, but not even necessarily formally charged or convicted of a crime. Adding insult to indignity, these individuals are forced to engage in a crooked game of online whack-a-mole to repair their online reputation.
While I can empathize with those who may be concerned about a more activist Google taking sides on what can be characterized as a moral or ethical issue, mugshot sites, and the removal services that act in concert, engage in search engine optimization tactics misusing publicly available information and duplicating and tagging content in a manner likely to inflict ongoing harm to the individuals affected.
Surely, an open web and an open mind can conclude that mugshot sites that engage in extortion, or business practices closely resembling the same, do not merit their previous page rank.
This recent algorithm change is one of a number of significant search updates that Google has announced over the past several months. In September, Google announced a new algorithm update, nicknamed Hummingbird, which is believed to be the biggest algorithm change in over 3 years. Google has said that the update may affect up to 90% of sites worldwide.