Google’s search engine is turning up images of Nazi paraphernalia whenever users enters the search term “desk ornament.”
Strangely, the wording has to be precise. Add an “s” on the end of “ornament” or insert a typo somewhere along the line, and the search results are very different, full of the normal fixtures someone who isn’t a Nazi might want to put on their desk. These also only show up when searching under the Images tab.
People seem to have first noticed the problem Thursday night, taking to Twitter and Reddit to ask if anyone else was having this problem. Thousands of users around the world, from India to Ireland, confirmed that they were seeing the same thing, even when they used a VPN to change their location.
It turns out that it’s not just Google that turned up these search results. After being alerted to the issue with Google, a number of Twitter and Reddit users tested out other search engines to see if they got the same results—reporting back that nearly every search engine they tried was also affected. The Daily Dot tested out both Bing and DuckDuckGo, two of the search engines that came up most frequently, and can confirm that the search results for both are producing the same kinds of Nazi memorabilia as Google.
Tech savvy social media users have suggested that this isn’t an issue with the search engines themselves, rather, it’s down to actions taken by users to game the system. Suggestions include SEO loading by the website owners in an attempt to flood the search term with their Nazi sales items, bot farms selectively clicking links to train the search engine to bring the Nazi-themed ones to the top, and a campaign of search abuse, where users repeatedly and en masse search specific terms together to train the algorithm to associate them.
Google does currently associate the search term “desk ornament” with World War II and Germany, as well as some more unequivocally Nazi terms, which could indicate a search abuse campaign. However, having checked Google trends, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the search term “desk ornament” with any World War II terms Google search currently connects it to—with the exception of “SS Runes” where there is a significant but not total degree of overlap.
A search abuse campaign would have to be conducted across multiple search engines, so some speculate SEO loading seems a more likely explanation. Additionally, examination of a handful of these Nazi memorabilia pages’ HTML shows heavy use of the phrase “desk ornament,” as well as multiple occurrences of both words separately. However, it is likely to be more complicated than just one cause, with multiple factors influencing each other.
It’s also possible that search engine association between “desk ornament” and objects with Nazi iconography has been going on for quite some time, only coming to the public’s attention last night after some high-profile Twitter users posted about it. The comedy website Cracked.com reported getting similar results back in 2016, but whether the issue was resolved at the time or has been ongoing is unclear.
Google’s Public Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, commented on the issue in a reply to Twitter user Jason Pargin, who was one of the first to raise the alarm. Apologizing for the Nazi memorabilia-filled search results, which he described as “not what most people would expect nor desire,” Sullivan promised that Google would be looking at “how to improve here.”
The Daily Dot has reached out to Sullivan, and the press teams for Google, DuckDuckGo, and Bing via email.
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