Holocaust Denial Site Tops Google Rankings

John Lister's picture

Google has tweaked its search algorithm after discovering holocaust denial sites were topping the results for some queries. The incident may have highlighted a difference in the way Google and other search engines rank pages.

The issue came to light when a newspaper reporter experimented with searches for the phrase "did the Holocaust happen" and discovered that the top result returned by Google was a site specifically dedicated to denying the Holocaust.

Other journalists checked up potentially controversial queries and found unsettling top results, such as a search for "are black people smart" producing a top result for a site claiming that "black people are significantly less intelligent than all other races." The way Google works means this claim appeared in the 'snippet' shown in the results, without the need to click through to the site. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Tweaks Kept Secret

Exactly how Google has changed the rankings algorithm is a secret, in line with its company policies. There's even some question over whether Google's changes are the reason the controversial sites are no longer topping the lists.

Search engine expert Danny Sullivan notes that the top result for the Holocaust query is now a site that was recently created and appears to have been specifically designed to perform well in the rankings. That may be a problem as it could suggest Google hasn't yet found a better solution to dealing with controversial sites as a whole. (Source: searchengineland.com)

Google Policies Could Affect Results

Sullivan also pointed out several reasons why Google might be struggling to keep such sites from the top rankings. One is that it doesn't appear to give as much priority to Wikipedia, which often tops results for other search engines. While Wikipedia is by no means 100 percent reliable, the introduction to its pages on controversial topics usually reflects consensus views and facts rather than more controversial and unproven arguments.

Another difference is that Google appears to give particularly strong emphasis to how many people click on each result, a sign that it is useful and relevant. The problem may be that people who search for queries such as "did the Holocaust happen" may be more likely to be searching for denial sites in the first place, creating a vicious circle.

What's Your Opinion?

Should Google do more to avoid sites with untrue claims getting the "prestige" of a high ranking? Can it create a formula that penalizes such sites without the need for constant human intervention? Or should Google leave everything up to the algorithm and not tweak results at all?

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Dennis Faas's picture

In cases like this a "like" or "+1" button would be useful, however if such an option was available to the entire public it would surely be abused by spammers. In that case, a vote for a website (as to whether it contains relevant information) should only be available at random intervals and only for websites that are considered controversial. How to deem whether a website is controversial would be difficult and likely undermine Google's main algorithm which looks at links pointing back to a source and/or whether people click on certain links, etc. It's easier said than done!

BERTIE91_8449's picture

I believe Google has a strong responsibility for its search responsibilities, and to make sure that the websites it lists as references are truthful...

while free speech is a right, it goes with a responsibility for the consequence of its behavior...for instance, it is illegal to holler "Fire" in a theatre if there is no fire.

Google, if it's going to list sites filled with information that is not only untrue, but also prejudicial and filled with hatred, should identify such sites as not in keeping with values that we Americans hold dearly.

Now, I know that some foks will say that smells like censoring...but lies repeated often enough become "true" for many readers. When it comes to an event like the Holocaust, which slaughtered not only 6,000,000 Jewish people, but also 7,000.000 Christians, gypsies, people of African descent, political dissidents, among others, are the kinds of events that should be publicized as much as possible. By listing Holocaust denial sites, without commenting on the validity of the information included on the site, must know and take responsibility for spreading lies. Wikipedia is noted for publishing inaccurate information, and indicates it does not check the accuracy of its contents. Does Google want to be known to have the same reputation? If so, then Google should indicate that it does not vouch for the accuracy of the information included in the sites to which it refers its searchers.

It is already well known that the sites listed first on Google pay for the privilege of placement...a very self serving practice by Google. Perhaps it should explain its practices to us, its users, so we can know that info on the web is necessarily any more true than what people say to one another in conversation.

Hope this helps folks consider the risks associated with free speech, which we all cherish, and the need to read critically, with an eye for verification of the information contained on the web.

matt_2058's picture

What if a person is looking for myths? Sorry, Myths, Legends, and Folklore are at the bottom of 5.37M results because a myth is not true information.

This is akin to deleting relevant data points that you just don't like. I don't agree with the manipulation. Having an algorithm to sort results is necessary, no problem. Tweaking it to get the results as a whole...like to meet the criteria set for results, no problem. Tweaking it to hide something that MEETS THE CRITERIA SET...problem.

Even that's not a real problem, unless you want to claim to be unbiased. There are specialized search engines....News, Weather, Hobbies, Porn, etc. As far as I know, Google claims to organize the world's information, not be the internet's truthsayer. Some of that information is good, and some bad. History is filled with incorrect information. It's even used in teaching today...."the world is flat" geography lesson.

Things have come a long way since 1995/1996 with searches. I remember the first time I used the internet to attempt research for a paper. After wasting a whole evening after work chasing somewhat related links, I spent the weekend in the library and did it the old-fashioned way.

These days, I find Google to be the most accurate search engine. I usually have no problem finding what I am looking for. Quickly. Stupid topic or not.

linden56_5312's picture

Simply tweak the algorithm until it's correct. A work in progress like other technologies.