Google Demotes Holocaust Denial and Hate Sites in Update to Algorithm

December 20, 2016, 9:17 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

In recent months, Google has confronted a new and unsettling trend: Its top search results for questions about the Holocaust lead to neo-Nazi sites while queries about different ethnic groups direct users to racist or inflammatory material.

The company last week said it was reluctant to take action, citing a desire to preserve the integrity of the company’s algorithms, which are designed to turn up relevant information. But on Tuesday, a Google spokesperson told Fortune it is making some changes.

“Judging which pages on the web best answer a query is a challenging problem and we don’t always get it right,” said the spokesperson. “We recently made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web. We’ll continue to change our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.”

The Google rep also explained that the process for tweaking its algorithm involves making scalable, systemic changes rather than simply demoting individual websites.

The changes come in the wake of news reports that Google’s auto-complete feature was prompting users to enter phrases like “Are Jews evil?” and that its top search result for “Did the Holocaust happen” was a page by the White Supremacist group, Stormfront:


The update to the algorithms appear to be kicking in already as the Stormfront site has dropped, and the top result is to a link by the United States Holocaust museum. The results may differ based on your previous searches or on where you are located. In Germany, for instance, Holocaust-denial sites are illegal, so Stormfront would not have appeared.

Meanwhile, all of the changes to the results are not entirely determined by Google. As long-time Google reporter Danny Sullivan points out, changes to the results may also be shaped by recent search activity in response to the controversy, and the arrival of new websites optimized to return queries about the Holocaust.

Sullivan also notes that sites about Jewish people have not been the only ones to yield controversial results. A search for phrases like “Are White People Stupid” also list offensive websites as a top result. And more broadly, the offensive results typically only appear at the top of the list when a user searchers for a specific phrase rather than enter a more common search term like “Holocaust” or “white people.”

It’s unclear how long it will take Google to complete the updated algorithm since such changes typically weeks or months to refine, and what sites will be favored as a result of the new emphasis on “more high quality, credible content.”

Meanwhile, the episode provides more fodder for the debate over how the influence Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) have over news and information, and the role of social media in creating so-called “filter bubbles” that lead people to shut out divergent opinions.

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