SEO, censorship, and the ex-president’s wife

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Since Google Instant launched in 2010, it’s been welcomed by many users as a valuable addition to their search arsenal.

The feature – which provides ‘recommended’ search terms as the user types – has also given rise to a potentially productivity-sapping office game. Try typing ‘has [insert celebrity name]’ to waste a slightly funny few minutes.

The most recent public figure to fall foul of Google Instant’s sometimes-unsavoury suggestions is Bettina Wulff, the wife of a former German president.

Wulff found herself the subject of scrutiny when it was suggested by some media sources that she had links with prostitution and an escort service in the past.

The flurry of public interest in this matter meant that more and more people were Googling her name and terms associated with this industry, which caused Google Instant to put these phrases high in the rankings.

Wulff has decided to sue Google in order to force it to remove the terms, which she believes to be defamatory, claiming that they continue to cast aspersions on her character despite the fact that she has already won two years' worth of legal battles with her accusers.

In search-related dilemmas like Wulff’s, search engine optimisation (SEO) can be a valuable tool for reputation management – sinking undesirable results down to the darkest depths of the SERPs and acting as a buoyancy aid to more complementary webpages.

Where the volume of searches is high enough to affect Google Instant’s recommendations, however, it’s harder to escape from unwanted associations. So Wulff’s decision to tackle the recommendations from the top may, on the surface, seem to be her best route to a scandal-free search bar.

Whilst Google has refused to censor its search results in the past on several occasions, it has been persuaded to alter the Google Instant suggestions in some circumstances. For example, at the beginning of last year it emerged that people searching for terms typically associated with online piracy and copyright theft would not see related phrases pop up as search suggestions. At the time, Google was not going as far as to actually remove the organic links to such sites in its SERPs.

This week, however, a story emerged which found that Google is no longer listing popular torrent site The Pirate Bay (TPB) after it began a campaign of blacklisting various infringement engines last month. Representatives for the newly blacklisted site have said that they do not believe the removal from Google will have a major impact on TPB's traffic.

He may have a point. UK users cannot directly access the site after ISPs were ordered to block it by the High Court, but visits from the UK actually increased after it was blocked.

As ever, gossip drives Google. So if Wulff’s case is successful, it will be interesting to see whether the lack of recommendations has a significant impact on searches.

The argument over search censorship is likely to intensify over the next few years and, whilst Google is occasionally seen to stand up for its largely uncensored SERPs – as in the case of its battle with Wulff – there are other instances in which it seems more willing to bend its democratic approach slightly.

Part of the problem is that Google is increasingly involving itself in the content delivery side of the business, with its Android operating system and own-brand devices like the Nexus 7 tablet. Piracy can detract from its revenues in this area, which means blocking copyright-infringing sites is sensible from a commercial point of view.

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