AN FRANCISCO, April 12 - Google Inc., the leading Internet search engine, said Monday that it had no plans to alter its search results despite complaints that the first listing on a search for the word "Jew" directs people to an anti-Semitic Web site.
The dispute points to one of the most difficult challenges that has plagued Web search engines: what to do when the results of a search are offensive to some, but legal?
In this case, the first listed site on a search for "Jew" is "Jewwatch .com," which promotes itself as "Keeping a close watch on Jewish communities and organizations worldwide" and offering references to anti-Semitic research, documents and organizations.
A Web site calling itself "Remove JewWatch.com from the Google search engine!" is circulating a petition asking Google to remove the site from its listings. Google search results rely on a complex set of algorithms that ranks sites based on the number and quality of the links to them.
The company, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., said it had no plans to remove the site from the search results list because it trusts its automated program to rank Web sites accurately. The search engine has been listing "Jewwatch.com" as the first-ranked site for three years.
"We find this result offensive, but the objectivity of our ranking function prevents us from making any changes," said David Krane, a spokesman for Google, adding that an exception is made only in cases where a site is illegal. Mr. Krane said the company has, for example, removed sites from its rankings that promote pedophilia, which is illegal.
For example, until February 2003, a user searching for a guide to the English city of Chester would have been presented with "Chester's guide to molesting young girls" as the second entry. After officials from Chester complained, Google removed the site.
But offensive material is often a matter of opinion, not legality. Conduct a
search on Google for "
Because Google's search results are determined in part by the number of links to a given page, as well as the number of times the search term appears near a link, even sites criticizing the "Jewwatch" site may be contributing to its high-ranking simply by linking to it. The top Google ranking for Jewwatch.com was discovered recently by a Google user, Steven Weinstock, who began the petition drive to force Google to remove the site from its listings.
In a letter posted on its Web site on March 30, the Anti-Defamation League explained that the ranking is "in no way a conscious choice by Google," but rather the result of an automated system.
"The longevity of ownership, the way articles are posted to it, the links to and from the site, and the structure of the site itself all increase the ranking of 'Jewwatch' within the Google formula," the letter said.
Over the years, some Web site developers have learned to manipulate the automated system by building links to make a site appear even more popular than it may be. And some commercial Web site developers have become quite adept at using this practice to raise the ranking of their businesses.
Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, a newsletter based in Darien, Conn., said Google was in a difficult position because it cannot be seen as treating material differently because it is offensive.
"Google would certainly come under fire if they were to choose to change it," Mr. Sullivan said.