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Google works to demote mug shot sites in search results

While legal, many Web sites charge fees to remove the very images the sites posted themselves. home page.
Screenshot by Steven Musil/CNET

Getting arrested is usually an unpleasant occurrence most people would probably just like to forget. Changes Google is making could help them do that.

Even after criminal cases have been resolved, the uncomfortable memory of that event lingers, quite publicly, thanks to for-profit Web sites that repost mug shots obtained from local law enforcement agencies. While this certainly sounds like a service that would benefit the public -- especially in the case of repeat offenders of serious crimes -- remnants of less-serious run-ins with the police can often haunt people for years -- regardless of guilt -- resulting in lost job or housing opportunities.

These sites often charge people $400 or more for an "unpublish service" to remove their images. But compounding the pain for many is their popularity in Google search results. Once a name that appears on a mug shot site is keyed into a query, images of that mug shot appear high in results.

While The New York Times noted that these sites are legal, the newspaper wondered why Google was rewarding them with favorable search result rankings, especially since the search giant's rules favor original content over images and text taken from a third party. After being contacted by the Times last week for an explanation, a spokesperson for the search giant initially said the company empathized for those affected by mug shot sites, but "with very narrow exceptions, we take down as little as possible from search."

Saying he was originally unaware of an effort to combat this situation, the Google spokesperson wrote back a few days to say company engineers were tinkering with its search algorithms to deal with the issue.

"Our team has been working for the past few months on an improvement to our algorithms to address this overall issue in a consistent way," he said. "We hope to have it out in the coming weeks."

Google isn't alone with its efforts; the payments backbone of the commerce on the Internet is also cutting off mug shot sites. After a few days reviewing the issue, officials at MasterCard told the Times that they found the activity "repugnant" and had urged the merchant bank that handles those accounts to end those relationships. PayPal had a similar response, as did American Express and Discover.