A Jewish heritage museum has accused Google of profiting from Holocaust denial because it is paying to prevent a neo-Nazi website from appearing as the top result for “did the Holocaust happen”.
The marketing director of the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, said it was “nauseating” that Google directed users to the white supremacist site, and added that it was paying Google up to $2 a click to direct searchers to its own site via AdWords, Google’s pay-per-click advertising service.
David Schendowich said it was nonsense for Google to claim that it was not profiting from Holocaust denial. “They may not take money from people denying the Holocaust, but the point is that museums and other organisations are paying to combat this stuff. They plainly are. We are. We’re paying them up to $2 a click.”
He declined to say how much the museum paid to Google but said search engine optimisation (SEO) and AdWords were a key part – and cost – of its marketing strategy.
The director of the Breman Museum, Aaron Berger, said that according to the Southern Law Poverty Center, Atlanta was the fourth worst state in the US for active hate groups and using AdWords was an “incredibly important part of our approach in getting our site up the search results”.
A Google spokesman said last week: “We never want to make money from searches for Holocaust denial and we don’t allow regular advertising on those terms.”
The Observer paid Google to take out advertisements pointing to the Wikipedia entry on the Holocaust for a number of Holocaust searches, spending £550 in just over two days. On Monday, Google offered to refund the money. The Observer declined the offer.
It comes after an intense three weeks of pressure on the company regarding its search results. It has consistently refused to take responsibility for directing Google users to hate content including a neo-Nazi site, Stormfront, for a search for “did the Holocaust happen”.
Leading academics said it was probably holding firm because to “edit” content on one subject would lead to calls to take action over other controversial topics. Frank Pascale, professor of law at the University of Maryland, said it would be a tacit admission that it was a publishing company and not a “neutral” platform, as it maintains.
On Tuesday, however, Google told a search industry website it had decided to make a major algorithmic change to combat the problem.
In a story, headlined Official: Google makes change, results are no longer in denial over ‘Did the Holocaust happen?’ a Google spokesman said the company had recently made “improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web”.
But Barry Schwartz, the founder of Search Engine Roundtable, a long-standing industry site, said: “There is no evidence of any change to the algorithm. We track these things very carefully and there’s nothing to suggest they have done anything.”
When asked why he thought Google had made the announcement at this time, he said: “It just seems like it must be a PR thing. That’s the only explanation I can see.”
Schendowich of the Berman Museum said Google was critical in getting the museum’s message about the Holocaust out: “Search is everything. It’s so powerful. People don’t respond to print. If you don’t show in search you are invisible.”
Its website does not show up on the first page of Google’s “natural” – ie not-paid for – search results for “Did the Holocaust happen”. Schendowich said the museum used very aggressive SEO techniques but it was hard because “Google is a big mystery. It’s a black box. Nobody knows how it works. Only Google.”
It therefore paid Google to come higher up the search results than sites such as Stormfront via AdWords by targeting certain search terms.
“We can’t afford to advertise that much because this is a very expensive search. It’s expensive because it’s popular. That’s how it works. You pay more to advertise Nike shoes than some other brand. This is the same. It’s a very hot topic and what bothers me is that a denier site is right at the top. It’s nauseating. Absolutely nauseating. I talk to so many people who survived it … it did happen. We have all the evidence. That’s what we’re doing. That’s why it’s so important.”
A Google spokesman said: “We have no interest in profiting from sites or organisations that promote hate, which is why we ban them from using our ads systems. Under some circumstances we allow advertising against offensive terms, typically by organisations whose mission involves educating people about the issues. Those organisations can and do apply for Ad Grants – free advertising to drive awareness and promote educational messages. We give hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free advertising to non-profit organisations through our Ad Grants programme.”