Content missing from search results? Sometimes it can be a decision made by Google to ensure that the Search continues to “return the most relevant and reliable information possible”. This is the central message of the post with which Danny Sullivan exposes and explains the reasons why Google can decide to independently remove content from its SERPs, making it disappear.

When Google removes content

It is therefore a different case from the interventions of content removal from Google that can be performed by the owners of the sites in certain cases, using for example the appropriate Search Console removal tool.

What the Public Liaison for Search puts in the spotlight in his article, in fact, are the serious cases that push Google to proceed with a content removal, in principle to protect users or to comply with the law. Google does not take this action lightly, and just think that even sites that violate Google’s black hat SEO rules are not permanently unindexed, but that sometimes can be inevitable.

The mission of the search engine

These interventions are there to defend Google’s mission, says Sullivan, who works every day to ensure access to information to a possibly universal audience and “make information from the Web available to everyone”. The systems are designed “to return the most relevant and reliable information possible, but our search results include open Web pages: therefore, depending on what you search for, the results may include content that people may find questionable or offensive”.

And so, while Google strives to provide open access to information, it also has “a strong commitment and responsibility to comply with the law and protect our users“. Overall, the approach to the quality of information and the removal of Web pages aims “to find a balance between ensuring that people have access to the information they need and doing our best to protect themselves from harmful information online“.

As said, however, in some cases the removal of the accessibility to a content in Google Search is the path taken, when such content is contrary to local law or other well-defined criteria.

Content removal in case of law violations

The legal requirements to remove pages from Google search results adhere to a high standard, the article said; for many issues, such as privacy or defamation, legal obligations may vary from country to country, since different jurisdictions have come to different conclusions on how to deal with these complex topics.

Also for this reason, Google encourages “people and authorities to warn us of content that they believe violates the law” – any user can send a removal request for inappropriate content that it deems to be in breach of the law, by filling in this form – and this reporting in most cases is necessary as Google is not always equipped “to determine whether a content is illegal, especially without notice from the one interested”.

Legal cases leading to the removal from SERPs

For example, in case of copyrighted material “we cannot automatically confirm whether a particular page hosting that particular content has a license to do so, so we need the rightholders to tell us so”.

Simpler, so to speak, is the identification of the “mere presence of pedopornographic material (CSAM) on a page, which is illegal in most jurisdictions”; therefore, Google has developed ways to automatically identify these types of content and prevent its display in search results.

However, for all legal removals Google shares “information on removal requests from the government in our Transparency Report” and where possible reports removal requests via Search Console to website owners.

Content removed to protect the users

The other big reason that prompts Google to act, in addition to inappropriate content in terms of law, is to defend some people’s data: the search engine has a number of “policies that go beyond what is required by law, mainly focused on highly personal content that appears on the open web”.

These include, for example, content that includes financial or medical information, government issued identity documents, intimate images published without consent and, in summary, all that information that “people generally intend to keep private and can cause serious damage, such as identity theft”: to avoid the potential risk of damage caused by personal information falling into the wrong hands, Google offers users the ability to request the removal of those pages from search results.

Moreover, Google is also looking for new ways “to carefully expand these policies to allow additional protections for people online”. An example of this is the possibility of “require the removal of pages on themselves from sites that exploit the situation and require a payment to proceed with the removal, or from pages that include contact information in the presence of personal threats, a form of doxxing“. In such cases, if “people might want to access these sites to find potentially useful information or understand their policies and practices, the pages themselves provide little value or public interest and could lead to damage to the reputation or even physical ones from which we aim to protect them”, Sullivan explains.

Solving large-scale problems thanks to insights

In order to solve inappropriate content problems may seem intuitive to “remove more content, page by page or restrict access to entire sites”, but removing individual pages from search results does not effectively fit the size of the open Web, with trillions of pages and other additions every minute, nor is it in line with Google’s philosophy.

The search engine then adopted a different approach, using the information obtained from removal requests to design systems that solve problems in all search results. Only the “creation of scalable and automated approaches allows us to solve these challenges more effectively, and at the same time to avoid unnecessarily restricting access to legal online content”.

This means that the most effective protection system for Google “is to design systems that place reliable and high quality information at the top of our results”, and use insights from the removal of pages, in accordance with company policies and legal obligations, to “improve our systems in general”.

Consequences for sites with inappropriate content

For instance, if a website receives a high volume of content removal requests valid for infringement of copyright law, Google will minimize the appearance of that site in search results, using insights to “as a signal of quality and downgrading the site in our results”. Similar measures are in place for websites that receive a high volume of removal requests for pages containing personal information.

This approach allows not only to help people who require removals, but also to “scale the fight against the problem in other cases”.

An evolving web and a still open issue

Despite all this attention from the search engine, in the conclusions of the article Sullivan dwells on an important aspect and reminds everyone that, although the content is removed from Google, could still exist on the Web and that only the owner of a website can completely remove the contents.

However, Google continues to fight “against the harmful effects of sensitive personal information that appear in our results and we adopt strict practices to ensure compliance with the law“, constantly evolving its approach “to protect against malicious agents on the Web and ensure that Google continues to provide reliable and high quality information for everyone”.

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