AS painful as they are for arrestees, mug shots seem to attract big online crowds. Google’s results are supposed to reflect both relevance and popularity, and mug-shot sites appear to rank exceptionally well without resorting to trickery, according to Doug Pierce, founder of Cogney, a search engine optimization company based in Hong Kong. At the request of The New York Times, Mr. Pierce studied a number of the largest mug-shot sites and found that they were beloved by Google’s algorithm in part because viewers who open them tend to stick around.
“When others search your name, that link to Mugshots.com is way more attention-grabbing than your LinkedIn profile,” Mr. Pierce said. “Once they click, they stare in disbelief, and look around a bit, which means they stay on the page, rather than returning immediately to the search results. Google takes that as a sign that the site is relevant, and that boosts it even more.”
What’s curious is that Google doesn’t penalize these sites for obtaining their images and text from other places, a sin in the company’s guidelines. The idea is that Web sites should be rewarded for coming up with original material and receive demerits for copying.
If it acted, Google could do what no legislator could — demote mug-shot sites and thus reduce, if not eliminate, their power to stigmatize.
Initially, a #Google spokesman named Jason Freidenfelds fielded questions on this topic with a statement that amounted to an empathetic shrug. He wrote that the company felt for those affected by mug-shot sites but added that “with very narrow exceptions, we take down as little as possible from search.”
Two days later, he wrote with an update: “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. We hope to have it out in the coming weeks.”
Mr. Freidenfelds said that when he sent the first statement, he was unaware of this effort. He added that the sites do, in fact, run afoul of a Google guideline, though he declined to say which one. Nor would he detail the algorithmic changes the company was considering — because doing so, he explained, could spur mug-shot sites to start devising countermeasures.
As it happens, Google’s team worked faster than Mr. Freidenfelds expected, introducing that algorithm change sometime on Thursday. The effects were immediate: on Friday, two mug shots of Janese Trimaldi, which had appeared prominently in an image search, were no longer on the first page. For owners of these sites, this is very bad news.
And, it turns out, these owners face another looming problem: getting paid.
Asked two weeks ago about its policies on mug-shot sites, officials at #MasterCard spent a few days examining the issue, and came back with an answer.
“We looked at the activity and found it repugnant,” said Noah Hanft, general counsel with the company. MasterCard executives contacted the merchant bank that handles all of its largest mug-shot site accounts and urged it to drop them as customers. “They are in the process of terminating them,” Mr. Hanft said.
#PayPal came back with a similar response after being contacted for this article.
“When mug-shot removal services were brought to our attention and we made a careful review,” said John Pluhowski, a spokesman for PayPal, “we decided to discontinue support for mug-shot removal payments.”
#American_Express and #Discover were contacted on Monday and, two days later, both companies said they were severing relationships with mug-shot sites. A representative of #Visa wrote to say it was asking merchant banks to investigate business practices of the sites “to ensure they are both legal and in compliance with Visa operating regulations.”