Skip to main content

Google apologizes for results of 'Michelle Obama' image search

By Saeed Ahmed, CNN
  • An offensive altered photo of Michelle Obama disappeared from Google search results
  • Google had first banned site with photo, but when picture reappeared Google let it stand
  • A user alerted Google to the picture via an online help forum two weeks ago
  • A Google ad apologizing for offensive content sometimes appeared with photo

(CNN) -- For most of the past week, when someone typed "Michelle Obama" in the popular search engine Google, one of the first images that came up was a picture of the American first lady altered to resemble a monkey.

On Wednesday morning, the racially offensive image appeared to have been removed from any Google Image searches for "Michelle Obama."

Google officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Google faced a firestorm of criticism over the episode. First, it banned the Web site that posted the photo, saying it could spread a malware virus. Then, when the image appeared on another Web site, Google let the photo stand. When a Google image search brought up the photo, an apologetic Google ad occasionally appeared above it.

The ad redirected users to a statement from Google which read, "Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google."

The California-based company then explained that search results rely on computer algorithms that take into account thousands of factors.

"The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results," it said.

The company said that the integrity of its search results is extremely important.

"Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it."

A user alerted Google to the picture via an online help forum two weeks ago.

The altered image can be found here, although clicking on this link will take users to a photo that many will find offensive.

The Internet was abuzz Tuesday and Wednesday with reaction to the image. Some online users demanded that the photo be blocked, while others said it should remain on free speech grounds.

"There is no way to defend this heinous incident," said a Twitter user who gave her name as Alheli Picazo of Calgary, Canada. "People often claim their right to free speech to mask blatant racism and insulting bigotry and always seem to get away with it," she told CNN via e-mail. "When it comes to issues of discrimination, hiding behind free speech just doesn't cut it."

A Twitter user who gave his name as Jerry Wright of Hoboken, New Jersey, disagreed.

"I am absolutely disgusted by this picture, but the Internet has thousands and thousands of offensive images. Should Google get rid of all of them? Where do you draw the line," he asked CNN via e-mail.

In 2004, Google posted a similar note of apology when a search for "Jew" pulled up anti-Semitic sites as top results.

Among the factors that Google uses to rank its results is how many sites link to an image or a Web page. Users have sometimes artificially inflated a search ranking through coordinated efforts, known as "Google bombing."

With Google letting the Obama image stand, a Twitter user who identified herself as Jill Harper of Indianapolis, Indiana, suggested a different tack: Point out the person who posted the photo.

"Instead of Google deleting the photo, there should be a campaign against the person who posted the photo," she said by e-mail. "Make a publicized attack noting the outrage of displaying such an offensive photo. This way, the person who posted it would feel the public outcry to pull the photo."