Misfortune Sucks, But It's Not Google's Responsibility

from the slippery-slope dept

Ars Technica has been following the story of Mario Gianna Masiá, who has been engaged in a legal battle with Google's Spanish arm over the search results for his business. His family opened the Camping Alfaques vacation spot in 1956, and in 1978 a tanker-truck explosion on a nearby road left 200 campers at the site dead, resulting in a lot of disturbing photos in the media. Masiá's father decided not to change the name of the business—it was still fully supported by locals and clients (the disaster was in no way their fault, and they were powerless to prevent it) and he said he had no desire to "erase history". Masiá later took over the business, and was shocked two-and-a-half years ago when, after one of Google's many adjustments to its algorithm, the grisly photos of the 30-year-old disaster began appearing near the top of the search results for the site. He wants them gone.

Now, to his credit, Masiá sounds a lot more reasonable than most people who have a problem with Google's results. He's noticed the bizarre fact that the generic query "camping alfaques" produces the disturbing images, while the more specific "accidente camping alfaques" doesn't. He understands that Google results are purely algorithmic, but feels this is a problem with that algorithm, and has been trying to get it fixed:

A regional IT consultant told him that the websites hosting the pictures had no interest in making any changes, so Mario decided to try Google. He began reporting the images as offensive, using Google's own tools, sometimes clicking on each five times a day; it had no result. He sent a certified letter to Google, begging them to associate the graphic images with searches for the accident and not with generic ones for his campground; they said there was nothing they could do.

... "We don't want to erase history, we want them [Google] to classify properly the information," Mario told me. He cited other searches, such as the one for the "MGM Grand" in Las Vegas. The hotel suffered a famous fire, but no picture or links to it appear just by searching the hotel name. Only specific searches for the tragedy bring up images of the burning building. Most of the world's accidents and terror attacks don't bring up such "horrific close-ups of people," Mario said.

After taking legal advice on the question and making no progress with Google, he finally sued the company's Spanish subsidiary in a local "court of first instance" in Spain. He didn't want any money; he wanted the images moved to other searches that he argues are more appropriate for the information. Last week, a judge threw the case out, saying that US-based Google Inc. had to be sued instead, as they were responsible for the algorithm.

The MGM Grand example seems damning at first, until you consider that it is a globally famous landmark that was the largest hotel in the world for years—and that was turned into Bally's, while the new MGM Grand Las Vegas has become an even more famous spot and is gobbling up lots of the search results.

Ars compares the situation to a few others, such as Google's "explanation page" linked from the distressing results for the query "jew", the changes Google has made to address "bomb" attacks that mocked public figures, and the suicide hotline notes they use in some countries. All those examples have key differences, though: the explanation page started as an internal Adword buy, and now exists as an organic result; Google bombs were addressed with algorithm changes, not curation; and the suicide hotline was included in their program to highlight emergency services information, just like fire and poison control phone numbers.

The fact is, sometimes bad things happen to good businesses. It's unfortunate that Masiá's business must contend with the fallout of an accident that he could not control, just as it's unfortunate when a crime scene shuts down a retail street during vital business hours, or when a "haunting" rumor forces a real estate agent to sell a house for less than its value—but bad fortune is a part of life. Google has to take an all-or-nothing stance on curation, because if they meddle with the results for one complainant, where does it end? Should a search for "Kent State" not return photos of the infamous massacre? Should a search for "Tiananmen Square" show only peaceful, touristy shots as it does in China?

Masiá is considering his next move, possibly planning to appeal the Spanish court's ruling rather than pursuing a judgement against Google in the U.S. as the first judge ruled he should. If he does, hopefully the appeals court will uphold the decision, and Masiá will realize that though he got a bum-deal, it's not Google's responsibility to fix it. But given Spain's mixed history of rulings about Google results, anything could happen.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
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    Trails (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:43am

    Or he could do what he's done!

    All the articles about this may actually force the unpleasant results down.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:55am

      Re: Or he could do what he's done!

      Not sure if you are being sarcastic.

      If not, don't forget the Actress who sued Amazon for revealing her true age. That ended up so well.
      Or the lady that sued search engines because her name was linked to performance enhancing drugs.

      While it sucks for the owner to have searches leading to the images, suing is only going to make it worse. He would have been better to make a page about the accident and explain why the results came up and this happened 30 years ago as an accident near the establishment. Including links to the stories that are generating the results would have also been helpful.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:16am

        Re: Re: Or he could do what he's done!

        Actually...that's what he's doing.

        I don't really hate this man for his lawsuit, I don't see most of the internet community attacking him with vitriol for it. He's being reasonable, requesting a change be made, and has some sound (though I would argue misguided) logical reasons for it. He's not really demanding anything or being greedy, just trying to get things change and is using the proper channels to do so (suing someone and appealing a ruling should be allowed in my opinion...if you've got the time and the money go ahead).

        So yes, these articles are going to be the first thing that pops up. And people may read them and realize "oh...that's what's going on...ok then" and then camp there anyway.

        Just a thought.

         

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    :Lobo Santo (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:46am

    Golden Opportunities

    He's totally missing out on the 'macabre' niche!!

    His campsite could become the destination of choice for the gothic/morbid/weird crowd. Throw in a little crime-scene/educational stuff and you could totally get some government/college funded college-kid field trips too!

    The guy's got the kind of publicity you simply cannot buy with money--and he's just pissing it away. Sad, really.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:50am

    Reasonable Compromise...

    In this particular case I would think that Google could solve the problem without having to alter it's altering it's algorithm by OFFERING a free link placement to the business in the Sponsored links for the search terms due to the unfortunate nature of the case. Of course Google is under no obligation to do this. I'm just saying that they could OFFER it and even might get some positive charitable publicity along the way.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:12am

      Re: Reasonable Compromise...

      That's not really an issue. When you search for the camp site name, the official site is already the first one listed - Google's algorithm tries to put "official" sites at the top of search results. This guy's complaint is that, in addition to his official site, the sucky images are showing up on the same page.

      Like the article said, it's just bad luck all the way around. The best "official" way to deal with this is to get whoever hosts the images to retag them from the camp site name to camp-site-name-accident. But it seems they weren't interested in doing that.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:44am

        Re: Re: Reasonable Compromise...

        Actually for me the Wikipedia article on the disaster came first followed by the images then the official one was third.

         

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 11:42am

        Re: Re: Reasonable Compromise...

        Nope the first one listed for me when I googled it was the Wikipedia page about the disaster, his site was 3rd, followed by google images I wish now I could unsee. I see the guys point really.

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:18am

      Re: Reasonable Compromise...

      If they do that though, what about piracy? They can surely offer a free link to the top of any music search to itunes, and amazon, and google music, and and and and and

      Or for movies to WB, and and and

      Oh and for software they could do the same for...and and and

      Better to say no and not set a precedent that anyone could ever use against them.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:52am

        Re: Re: Reasonable Compromise...

        They can CHOOSE to give free ad space to WHOMEVER they want for WHATEVER REASON they want. I was thinking if the CHOSE to be benevolent to a small family business adversely affected by a tragic disaster it might help solve the problem and give them some positive credit for being charitable at very little cost to them as a bonus.

        Could they CHOOSE to give the greedy arrogant bastards in the Content Cartels free advertising too? Of course the could but why would they do that? It would do them absolutely no good whatsoever.

         

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          Khaim (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 6:05pm

          Choosing to give away ads

          The problem is that if you give away your product to one company but not another, the company you're not helping sues you. Although I guess we're talking about the Content Cartels, and I know they would never sue an internet company for giving stuff away free.

           

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:53am

    I think you mean "grisly" rather than "grizzly". Unless they are pictures of bears.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:59am

    He's noticed the bizarre fact that the generic query "camping alfaques" produces the disturbing images, while the more specific "accidente camping alfaques" doesn't.

    Once again, the shittiness of Google's algorithm is shown.

    I'm sorry, but Google search sucks. Every time I make a search, I have to come up with some weird combination of double quotes and minus symbols just to get half-decent results. And even then, I think that Google decides to drop some of the search terms for some random reason.

    Not to mention the times where Google just goes like "You were searching for X, but I'm showing results for Y, because I assume that, if I don't know what it is, it's probably a stupid mistake on your part, dumbass".

    Oh, how I wish Google was more like in the old days, where you got pages about what you wanted, not what Google thinks you want.

    /end rant

     

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      Cowardly Anon, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:20am

      Re:

      It's not the shittiness of Google's algorithm, it's the stupidity of people searching.

      No, I'm not calling you stupid.

      What I bet has happened is that people searched for "camping alfaques", those people saw the accident links further down in the search results and clicked there to see what that was about. That in turn made the rankings on those pages higher, and moved them up in the search results. Soon, these links ended up as first page results, meaning they got more exposure, more clicks, higher rank....vicious cycle.

      Now they are at the top b/c at some point someone searching for "camping alfaques" clicked on something other than what the search would normally be used for. Google's algorithm has associated "camping alfaques" with the accident b/c that is where people clicked after doing that search.

      Thus, it's the stupidity of people that caused this, not Google's algorithm. The same can be said for when it does the "You searched for X, but I'm showing results for Y". B/c enough stupid ppl made that mistake.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:44am

        Re: Re:

        I'd say that a search engine that forces users to go through all sorts of loops to get decent results for a reasonably specific query isn't a very good search engine at all, especially if you consider that like five years ago, the same query would've returned "good" results without any special syntactic tricks.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 2:10pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I hear you. I've been putting + in front of every search term for a couple years now, because for some reason that made the results at least halfway relevant. (I got that tip from someone else who'd gotten sick of getting Google results that ended up not actually having any of the keywords he'd searched for, even though the search page said they did.)
          These days that trick doesn't work as well as it used to. Never heard of that double-quote thing; I'll have to look into that.

          What's up with Google's weird desire to give people what Google thinks they want instead of what they say they want, anyway? I still remember getting annoyed about the way Chrome 9's address bar autocomplete works. I checked, and the Chrome forums had pages of people demanding that URL autocomplete be removed, or at least able to be disabled. Eventually a dev popped in, said he was the guy in charge of it, and that they'd try to tone it down a little for Chrome 10.
          I'm still using Chrome 8. (Well, SRWare Iron 8.)

           

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            Khaim (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 6:12pm

            +search

            Google got rid of the + operator a while back. They want to use it to interact with Google+ (obviously) but that means it can't also be the operator for "really include this word". You should use quotes for that instead, like "really include this word".

            As for Google's weird desire to give people what they want instead of what they asked for, you should remember that you're probably not average. Based solely on the content (and grammar) of your post, you're probably well above average, intelligence-wise. The fact that you know how to properly format a search query does not mean that most people do.

             

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          PaulT (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:36pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Sorry, is it mandatory where you are to use Google instead of its many competitors? I can't think of any other reason why you'd use a site you hate so much.

           

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 12:41pm

        Re: Re:

        You're both idiots. The ranking of results is overwhelmingly dominated by inbound links. The grisly images are simply more interesting, as voted by the rest of the web.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 2:16pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Google's algorithm uses both linking pages AND clicks on responses. Frankly I am sure that it weighs clicks more heavily, because who cares that 1,000,000 pages link to an image if no one wants to see it when they search why bother showing it in the search results? Ultimately the problem is peoples obesession with the macabre. This guy needs to post picture of girls in bikinis and tag them with the name of the campground. Then when people search for the campground they will see pictures of boobies instead of the aftermath of an accident.

           

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:02am

    Wouldn't it be simpler at this point to just change the name of the campsite?

     

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      Chargone (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:27am

      Re:

      depends on how many different other entities that change would have to be reported to, i guess.

       

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      weneedhelp (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      With the "MGM Grand" comparison it appears to be volume. There are thousands of pictures of MGM and babes at MGM. (Just a happy observation) They need to flood the internet with nice pictures of the campsite. Unfortunately for him, the number of pics tagged with Camping Alfaques or do a search for just Alfaques, just happen to be of the accident.

      "using Google's own tools, sometimes clicking on each five times a day" - Well hell if he just uploaded 5 pics a day to facebook, twitter, photobucket, google, etc his problem could have gone away by now.

      Just think if all the time and money wasted trying to litigate was spent on an advertising/social media campaign. He could easily bury those pictures.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 12:42pm

        Re: Re:

        Well hell if he just uploaded 5 pics a day to facebook, twitter, photobucket, google, etc his problem could have gone away by now


        Not if those aren't interesting to anyone. The inbound links to those images need to drown out the accident pics.

         

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          weneedhelp (profile), Mar 7th, 2012 @ 12:36pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          So you are saying it is not easy to game Google rankings?

          Just think if all the time and money wasted trying to litigate was spent on an advertising/social media campaign.

          "The inbound links to those images need to drown out the accident pics."

          Again, if time spent was spent wisely, he could bury those pics in a short amount of time.

           

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    West Coast Kenny, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:25am

    Transitory versus Permanent Affects

    The examples at the end of the article you cite are all transitory; if the police shut down a street while they investigate a crime scene, they take down the yellow tape and let you clean it up in a day or so. A rumor about a haunted house affects the price of that one house, not the broker's entire inventory.

    By the way, did you mean to write "damning"?

     

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      Leigh Beadon (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 11:39am

      Re: Transitory versus Permanent Affects

      Damn those typos. Fixed!

       

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      PaulT (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 9:41pm

      Re: Transitory versus Permanent Affects

      "if the police shut down a street while they investigate a crime scene, they take down the yellow tape and let you clean it up in a day or so. "

      That depends. News would definitely circulate and remain online. If the crime was murder, that could generate rumours that bring down the value of property on the street (e.g. a typically quiet neighbourhood becomes associated with a notorious murder), and so forth.

      "A rumor about a haunted house affects the price of that one house, not the broker's entire inventory."

      ...and the instance above only affects this one campsite, not his entire business chain. It's not Google's fault if it's the only business he has, just as it's not the haunting rumour's fault if the agent only has one property to sell...

       

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      Leigh Beadon (profile), Mar 7th, 2012 @ 6:01am

      Re: Transitory versus Permanent Affects

      if the police shut down a street while they investigate a crime scene, they take down the yellow tape and let you clean it up in a day or so.

      There are many, many retail businesses that make virtually ALL their money during one or two weeks of the year. Being shut down for ONE of those days can, quite literally, put a whole store out of business - or put them a full year further away from profitability. Running a small business is tough.

       

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    TtfnJohn (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:27am

    Ahhh, last time I used Google, just a few minutes ago, it returns text results unless I set it and my browser up to return both text and illustrations.

    The text result(s) also show a headline and a date which may go back a number of years. Now if you go directly from there to the pictures you get the pictures of a 30 year old incident I guess.

    It does seem there's a bit of weakness in Google's famous algorithm from what the owner of the campsite is complaining about and to my mind Google should look into it and do what they can to mitigate it. The suggestion that they offer a sponsored link position sounds good to me but I can also see good reason why Google wouldn't do that from a sales perspective not to mention liability.

     

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    Machin Shin (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:29am

    Wouldn't it be simpler for him to instead of paying lawyers to sue Google, just hire a team to do some SEO and pull some positive stuff about his site up in the results? In the end it will be cheaper and more effective.

     

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      RyanMc (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:58am

      Re:

      I feel bad that this guy has to fight history/bad tags, but I would have to agree, this would appear to be an SEO problem. Seems like hitting your head against a wall would be more efficient than trying to sue Google for a rank issue.

      Its unfortunate that the original picture host was unwilling to change the tags on the images. I think that also could have helped to change the ranking of them. Maybe the original host will change their minds and try to help out?

       

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    Ninja (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:30am

    It's sad that the explosion event draws so much more attention than the good stuff around but such is the human nature. I'm not sure how he can make results about the camp more relevant but maybe that's where he should be focusing his resources on, not on suing Google. How can he get more relevant in the results? Maybe this episode actually boosts the ranks of his camp and maybe it's better to get results of their fight with Google than the photos related to the accident.

    Point is, just like the MAFIAA shouldn't be focusing on litigation, he should accept the result and move towards a better model to fix this issue. Maybe it involves a better business model too lmao

    In any case, god luck to the camp. Except that in this case (vs Google) I think the decision was pretty sane and all right.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:57am

    In this case, dude should just change the name of the camp site.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 1:20pm

    I see two options outside of the lawsuit:

    1. Buy a google ad so your page is in the sponsored links at the top of search results.

    2. Change the name of your camp ground.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 3:31pm

      Re:

      Plus both of these options are likely to be both cheaper and more effective then a law suit.

       

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      PaulT (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:05pm

      Re:

      3. Realise that most people won't consider an accident 30 years ago as an indictment of the modern site and so business probably won't be affected too much.

      Actually, the problem here seems to be that the guy has an emotional, rather than business, objection to the images. This is why he's had so little luck so far. Google won't censor the images no matter how much he asks, because they're historical record. They won't game the system to protect his feelings.

      At this point, it's tough. It's an unfortunate part of history that, in the information age, can't be buried. The events in the photos happened, and his campsite is as tied to them as any scene is to any notorious event. It might be sad that, at this particular moment in time, his site's name is more closely associated with the accident than it was a few years ago, but that will pass. In the meantime, this story is probably causing more searches than before, and therefore keeping the accident on top of the rankings. Really, he only has one option, although it may seem a little harsh to say:

      4. Get over it

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:07pm

    There is quite a debate in Europe over the "right to be forgotten" - which is what I thought this lawsuit was about. There are good and bad points to it - can someone hold your personal information forever (an employer or dentist) which also includes the internet.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/business/in-personal-data-a-fight-for-the-right-to-be-forgotte n.html?_r=1

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidcoursey/2012/02/24/how-the-right-to-be-forgotten-thr eatens-the-internet/

     

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      PaulT (profile), Mar 6th, 2012 @ 10:22pm

      Re:

      I don't think this is a relevant comparison, to be honest. There's surely different standards for keeping details about a matter of historical public record (as the accident above is) than there are for private personal information.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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