Court Rules Website Liable for Google Snippet

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  • June 2, 2009
Patrick Altoft

Patrick Altoft

Director of Strategy

A Dutch website has lost a lawsuit over the words appearing in the snippet of text appearing in Googles search results, despite the fact that Google generated the snippet.

Apparently the snippet gave the incorrect impression that a local car dealer (Zwartepoorte) had gone backrupt despite the fact that the snippet only appeared when you searched for “zwartepoorte failliet” (failliet means bankrupt in Dutch). The offending page has now been taken down.

If you search for two quite rare words on Google then the results returned don’t always have those words next to each other – sometimes the best match Google can find is a page with both words somewhere in separate sections.

Zwartepoorte

This is the snippet that Google generated (screenshot above), notice the dots to indicate the words were not together on the page:

Volledige naam: Zwartepoorte Specialiteit: BMW … Dit bedrijf is failliet verklaard, het is overgenomen door het motorhuis Ik heb bij Boot Rialto gewerkt …

Translated into English:

Complete name: Zwartepoorte Specialiteit: BMW…This company has been declared bankrupt, it has been acquired by the motordealer I have worked for Boat Rialto…

The reasons behind the findings were as follows:

According to the Court, the duty of care to remove or restructure the content that caused a combination of snippets to appear in a Google search result existed because:

1. plaintiff had suffered damages because of the wrong suggestion;

2. defendant used the services of Google, had optimized the ranking of its website in Google, and profited from this (through advertisements);

3. Plaintiff had requested to do something about it a number of time, with reference to the damage it was suffering;

4. It was easy for defendant to make a simple change to the website that would have caused the snippet to change;

According to the court, it would be rather easy for Miljoenhuizen.nl to edit its site so that something else turned up in the snippet. This may be because Miljoenhuizen.nl said as much during the court case – before retracting its words in statements to the press.

Why this is all wrong

There are a number of issues with this ruling, the main one being that an individual website doesn’t have full control over what appears in a snippet. Yes you can influence it but you can never fully control what appears because snippets are query dependent and not website dependent.

Every time a user types something into Google all the snippets are generated in real time based on what Google things you are looking for. Each snippet might only be seen by one person so how is a site owner supposed to police snippets for search results that nobody has even thought of yet.

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