Google said Thursday that it's changing the algorithms that power its iconic search engine, in an attempt to crack down on websites that publish unverified and slanderous posts about people. It's a rare move for a company that's historically taken a hands-off approach to managing its search results.
The changes take aim at an industry of online extortion, in which websites post unproven claims calling people cheaters, predators and pedophiles. The posts rank high in Google's search results when people query the victim's name. Then the websites charge thousands of dollars to remove the damning claims.
Google has also created a list of "known victims" that includes the names of people who've reported to the company that they were the target of such schemes. For those people, Google said it'll apply protections when it comes to the ranking of search results, an effort to prevent similar content from other websites appearing when someone searches for their names.
"Over the years, our approach to improving quality issues in search ranking has been consistent: we do not take the approach of 'fixing' individual queries, but we take these examples and look for ways to make broad algorithmic improvements," Pandu Nayak, a Google vice president who leads search quality teams, said in a statement. "Our ability to address issues has improved with better technology, tools and quality signals, and today we're able to take a more nuanced approach to address specific classes of queries. But the underlying principles remain the same."
The move is part of a broader shift to combat toxic content, as the company faces intense scrutiny for misinformation and extremism flowing on its platforms. But it's a notable change for a company that's been famously reluctant to intercede when it comes to organic search results. Google's search engine accounts for about 90% of web searches worldwide, and it's the 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 intervene in search results in recent years as pressure has mounted from regulators. In 2014, the European Union ruled that Google must alter search results as part of the "right to be forgotten." The standard lets residents demand that Google delete personal data about them from search results if the information is considered outdated, irrelevant or not in the public interest.