Conundrum Corner: Europe, Google and “The Right to be Forgotten”

file and forgetThis past week, The Wall Street Journal published an article which reported on the fallout from the European Court of Justice’s 2014 ruling that Google is required to remove links in European search results for individuals whose reputations are harmed by them.

In practice, it’s turned out to be quite a conundrum.  Since the ruling went into effect, Google has had to field requests to remove nearly 950,000 links from European search results.

Each request is deliberated on a case-by-case basis by a panel of specialists.  Reportedly, Google has dozens of attorneys, paralegals and engineers assigned to the task, which is based at its European headquarters facilities in Dublin, Ireland.

So far, approximately one-third of the links in question have been removed while about half were deemed acceptable to continue displaying in search results.  The remaining cases – the gnarliest ones – are still under review.

Unfortunately, the European Court of Justice hasn’t been very specific on the standards to apply when evaluating each request – other than to assert that search results should be removed that include links to information that is:

  • Irrelevant
  • Inadequate
  • Excessive
  • Harmful
  • Outdated

Which, of course, could encompass practically anything.  But the broader standard the Court has sought to uphold is “the right to be forgotten.”

Google hasn’t exactly been a willing participant in these mini-dramas.  Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, contends that Google has been compelled “to play a role we never asked to play – and don’t want to play.”

Lisa Fleisher and Sam Schechner, the authors of the Wall Street Journal article, noted several examples of criteria that Google appears to be using when evaluating individual requests for removal.

More likely to be removed are search entries pertaining to crimes committed long ago and expunged from criminal records … nude or other revealing photos published without the permission of the subjects … and arrest records for petty infractions.

Less likely to be removed:  stories about public figures.

As for the “group dynamics” involved in the decision-making, Fleischer reports that the committee’s votes are normally “a large majority in favor of one decision or the other.”

Looking ahead, as the experiment in parsing web search results to remove certain links while retaining others continues, it’s sure to have implications worldwide.

One reason is that, for now at least, Google has been removing search results only from European domains such as or, but not from the far-more-ubiquitous U.S.-based – even when accessed from Europe.

This means that the “offending” search results can continue to be viewed, retrieved and opened easily.

That fact isn’t sitting well with EU privacy regulators.  In fact, they’ve already issued an opinion contending that Google’s actions are insufficient, and they are seeking wider compliance.  The potential price for not doing so is – you guessed it – legal action.

As time goes on, it will be interesting to see what ends up leeching into the American sphere when it comes to the ability of people to have erroneous or unflattering information about them that is currently so readily visible removed from view.

Clearly there are competing principals at work:  freedom of information versus reputation protection.

paper documents on fileCourt documents and similar documentation have always been public-access information, of course.  But up until a few years ago, anyone interested in trolling for “dirt” on an individual or a company had to do costly, proactive searching through reams of paper-based documents.

Not only was it a labor-intensive process that might or might not result in anything of substance, the source information itself was scattered among thousands of county seats all across America.

That alone was enough to guarantee that most documents were effectively far away from public view.

But in today’s everything-digitized world, court documents – many dating back decades – have been optically scanned and can now be keyword-searched within an ounce of your life.

digitized docsWhat used to take months and cost plenty can now be researched in a matter of minutes.

And beyond court or government documentation is the press, which can get things very wrong (or simply premature) when reporting on controversial or titillating news items.

It affects companies as well as individuals.  I recall one such example in Baltimore from a number of years ago.  The local business press reported on a lawsuit brought by a disgruntled creditor against another company.  (I’m not naming the companies in question in deference to their reputations.)

The press reporting focused on the plaintiff’s petition to force the company into bankruptcy by virtue of the alleged “unpaid debt.”  The fact that the substance of the suit was found wanting and the defendant firm cleared of wrongdoing made little difference when it came to the reputation of the company and its principals;  the original news reports continue to have a life online, years later.

As the CEO the defendant company wrote to the publication involved,

“We now live in an age where digital documents take on a life of their own, and where it is no longer sufficient to consider whether someone might read a newspaper article on a given page on a given day.  Now, with the press of a button articles are stored in massive servers and retrieved by anyone around the world, leaving innocent people branded forever by erroneous words and faulty assumptions. 

It is your ethical responsibility to avoid causing undue harm to innocent parties by prematurely publishing information that others will negative construe and act upon.  Waiting a little longer to clarify the facts and determine the truth is sensible public policy and only makes your paper’s articles more trustworthy and fair, thereby avoiding the journalistic equivalent of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”

It seems to me that we’re just starting down a road with this issue, and we don’t really know where it’s going to end up.

Considering everything – the European Court of Justice, Google and the global nature of “search and destroy,” I’d be interested in hearing what readers think about the situation, the competing issues, and the ultimate destination.

Information, advertising and eye-tracking: Continuity among the chaos.

digital eyeIn the Western world, humans have been viewing and processing information in the same basic ways for hundreds of years. It’s a subconscious process that entails expending the most judicious use of time and effort to forage for information.

Because of how we Westerners read and write – left-to-right and top-to-bottom – the way we’ve evolved searching for information mirrors the same sort of behavior.

And today we have eye-scanning research and mouse click studies that prove the point.

In conducting online searches, where we land on information is known variously as the “area of greatest promise,” the “golden triangle,” or the “F-scan diagram.”

However you wish to name it, it generally looks like this on a Google search engine results page (SERP):

F-scan diagram

It’s easy to see how the “area of greatest promise” exists. We generally look for information by scanning down the beginning of the first listings on a page, and then continue viewing to the right if something seems to be a good match for our information needs, ultimately resulting in a clickthrough if our suspicions are correct.

Heat maps also show that quick judgments of information relevance on a SERP occur within this same “F-scan” zone; if we determine nothing is particularly relevant, we’re off to do a different keyword search.

This is why it’s so important for websites to appear within the top 5-7 organic listings on a SERP – or within the top 1-3 paid search results in the right-hand column of Google’s SERP.

In recent years, Google and other search engines have been offering enhancements to the traditional SERP, ranging from showing images across the top of the page to presenting geographic information, including maps.

To what degree is this changing the “conditioning” of people who are seeking out information today compared to before?

What new eye-tracking and heat maps are showing is that we’re evolving to looking at “chunks” of information first for clues as to the promising areas of results. But then within those areas, we revert to the same “F-scan” behaviors.

Here’s one example:

Eye-tracking Update

And there’s more:  The same eye-tracking and heat map studies are showing that this two-step process is actually more time-efficient than before.

We’re covering more of the page (at least on the first scan), but are also able to zero in on the most promising information bits on the page.  Once we find them, we’re quicker to click on the result, too.

So while Google and other search engines may be “conditioning” us to change time-honored information-viewing habits, it’s just as much that we’re “conditioning” Google to organize their SERPs in ways that are easiest and most beneficial to us in the way be seek out and find relevant information.

Bottom line, it’s continuity among the chaos. And it proves yet again that the same “prime positioning” on the page favored for decades by advertisers and users alike – above the fold and to the left – still holds true today.

What’s Happening with Web Search Behaviors?

Search EnginesMore than 460 million searches are performed every day on the Internet by U.S. consumers. A new report titled 2010 SERP Insights Study from Performics, an arm of Publicis Groupe, gives us interesting clues as to what’s happening in the world of web search these days.

The survey, fielded by Lancaster, PA-based ROI Research, queried 500 U.S. consumers who use a search engine at least once per week, found that people who search the Internet regularly are a persistent lot.

Nine out of ten respondents reported that they will modify their search and try again if they aren’t successful in their quest. Nearly as many will try an alternate search engine if they don’t succeed.

As for search engine preference, despite earnest efforts recently to knock Google down a notch or two, it remains fully ensconced on the top perch; three-fourths of the respondents in this survey identify Google as their primary search engine. Moreover, Google users are less likely to stray from their primary search engine and try elsewhere.

But interestingly, Google is the “search engine of choice” for seasoned searchers more than it is for newbies. The Performics study found that Google is the leading search engine for only ~57% of novice users, whereas Yahoo does much better among novices than regular users (~36% versus ~18% overall).

What about Bing? It’s continuing to look pretty weak across the board, with only ~7% preferring Bing.

The Performics 2010 study gives us a clear indication as to what searchers are typically seeking when they use search engines:

 Find a specific manufacturer or product web site: ~83%
 Gather information before making a purchase online: ~80%
 Find the best price for a product or service: ~78%
 Learn more about a product or service after seeing an ad elsewhere: ~78%
 Gather information before purchasing in-store or via a catalog: ~76%
 Find a location for purchasing a produce offline: ~74%
 Find coupons, specials, or sales: ~63%

As for what types of listings are more likely to attract clickthroughs, brand visibility on the search engine results page turns out to be more important than you might think. Here’s how respondents rated the likelihood to click on a search result:

 … If it includes the exact words searched for: ~88%
 … If it includes an image: ~53%
 … If the brand appears multiple times on the SERP: ~48%
 … If it includes a video: ~26%

The takeaway message here: Spend more energy on achieving multiple high SERP rankings than in creating catchy video content!

And what about paid or sponsored links – the program that’s contributing so much to Google’s sky-high stock price? As more searchers come to understand the difference between paid and “natural” search rankings … fewer are drawn to them. While over 90% of the respondents in this research study reported that they have ever clicked on paid sponsored listings, only about one in five of them do so on a frequent basis.

Search Engine Rankings: Page 1 is Where It’s At

All the hype you continually hear about how important it is to get on Page 1 of search engine result pages turns out to be … right on the money.

In a just-released study from digital marketing company iCrossing, nearly 9 million “non-branded” search queries conducted on Google, Yahoo and Bing were analyzed, with the clickthrough percentages from the first, second and third pages of the search engine results (SERPs) tallied.

It turned out that more than 8.5 million clickthroughs were made from the first page of results – a whopping 95% of the total. The rest was just crumbs: Clicks off the second page came in under 250,000, while third-page clicks clocked in at a paltry ~180,000.

The results were essentially the same for the three major search engines (all at 95% or 96%) – so it’s a clean sweep across the board and clearly behavior that fits all across the spectrum.

What this suggests is that when searching on generic or descriptive terms, most people will not go past the first page of results if they can’t find a site link that interests them. If they don’t hit paydirt on the first page, they’re far more likely to try another search using different keywords or phrases until they find a site on Page 1 that does the trick.

Comparing this newest iCrossing study with research from a few years back reveals that Page 1 clicks represent an even higher proportion today; earlier studies from a few years back had it pegged at 80% to 90%.

The implications of this study are be clear: if you’re looking to attract visitors to your site via generic or descriptive subject searches, you’d better make sure your site is designed so that it achieves first-page ranking … or your web efforts will be for naught.

That being said, the recipe for success in ranking hasn’t changed much at all. Despite all of the tempting “link juice” tips and tricks out there, the main keys to getting high rankings continue to be creating loads of good web content … speaking the same “language” as searchers (however inaccurate that might be) … and maintaining lots of good links to and from your site to increase its “relevance” to search engines.

No doubt, it’s getting tougher to achieve Page 1 ranking when there’s so much competition out there, but it’s well worth the effort.