Google updates search algorithms to combat online slander

It’s a rare move for a company that has historically been reluctant to interfere with search results.

Google is cracking down on websites that slander online.

Google on Thursday said it is revamping the algorithms powering its iconic search engine, in an effort to crack down on websites that post unverified and slanderous posts about people. It’s a rare move for a company that has historically taken a pragmatic approach to managing its search results.

The changes are aimed at an industry of online extortion, in which websites post unproven claims calling people fraudsters, predators and pedophiles. Posts rank higher in Google’s search results when people ask for the victim’s name. Then websites charge thousands of dollars to remove harmful claims.

The New York Times previously reported the changes, which were prompted by articles in the Times that focused on Google’s algorithmically-assisted extortion schemes.

Google has also created a list of “known victims” that includes the names of people who have told the company they were targets of such schemes. For those in the know, Google said it would implement protections when it comes to ranking search results, attempting to block similar content from other websites when someone searches for their name.

“Over the years, our approach to improving quality issues in search rankings has been consistent: we do not take the approach of ‘fixing’ individual queries, but we take these examples and look for ways to make broader algorithmic improvements. Let’s do it,” Pandu Nayak, a Google vice president who leads the search quality teams, said in a statement. “Our ability to address problems has improved with better technology, tools and quality prompts, and today we are able to take a more nuanced approach to addressing specific classes of questions. But the underlying principles remain the same.”

The move is part of a broader shift to tackle toxic content, as the company faces intense scrutiny for ongoing misinformation and extremism on its platform. But it’s a notable change for a company that has been famously reluctant to intervene when it comes to organic search results. Google’s search engine accounts for about 90% of web searches worldwide, and is a cornerstone of an advertising business that generates the vast majority of Google parent Alphabet’s more than $180 billion in annual revenue.

Google has begun to interfere with search results in recent years as pressure from regulators has mounted. In 2014, the European Union ruled that Google must change search results as part of its “right to be forgotten”. The standard allows residents to demand that Google remove personal data about them from search results if the information is deemed out of date, irrelevant or not in the public interest.

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