Last week, I wrote a blog post about the mysterious disappearance of PayPal from a variety of mugshot websites. At the time, my colleagues and I had no idea what was causing the change, and I mentioned that most consumers could still pay for record removal using major credit cards. In other words, the change seemed important enough to discuss, but I wasn't sure it signaled much more than a little blip in the workings of a booming industry.
A lot can change in a week.
This morning, as I was browsing through The New York Times, I stumbled across this article about the mugshot industry. It looks like this story was several days, if not several weeks, in the making, and I'm wondering if some of the digging that reporter did as part of the writing process caused a shakeup that we're just now beginning to understand.
But let me back up and explain what's going on, just for those readers who may not have time to read a 1,000+ article from NYT.
The Industry in Snapshot Form
Mugshot websites like Arrests.org and BustedMugshots.com cull arrest information from public sources, like county police blotters, and they put those mugshots on their own sites. It's a simple copy and paste, and in most cases, there's no human intervention involved. Anyone with a computer and a wee bit of coding expertise could build a site like this in an afternoon.
At one point, sites like this were pretty rare, but Wired profiled the creator of one of the first mugshot websites, and when this guy started discussing how much money he made and how easy the whole thing was, other people started to get interested. In fact, they started to get a little greedy, and a whole cottage industry was founded.
As a result, anyone who was arrested in a state with an open records law could expect to see the details of the arrest and the mugshot taken during the arrest available on a mugshot site within hours. Each site asked for a fee for record removal, which could mean that people were asked to spend thousands to clean up their reputations.
Additionally, the sites had a high index rate to Google, so searches for a person's name would almost automatically bring back photographs from mugshot websites. Even though all of the information on the sites was copied from somewhere else, and even though Google's rules specifically state that sites with copied data rank lower in search results, those photos were front and center.
Everything changed this week.
We'll start with the payment changes that took place this week. As we noticed, PayPal seemed to break ties with mugshot sites quite early in the week, and the button seemed to disappear from the sites. Now, according to the New York Times, many major credit card companies, including MasterCard, are no longer accepting payments from mugshot websites.
Apparently, when the reporter contacted these companies about the mugshot industry, presumably sharing a few stories of people who had been harmed by the sites, the companies chose to refuse payments.
UPI.com covered this story today, and the reporters there contacted a few other credit card companies, including American Express and Discover. The representatives of these companies also claimed that they had terminated their agreements with mugshot sites.
This is a remarkable development, in my eyes. Presumably, these companies were aware of what mugshot sites were designed to do, and they've been accepting payments from those sites for years. I'm not sure why they'd change their tune due to a simple investigation from a reporter from a major newspaper, as they haven't been willing to do so in the past. But it seems that the mere idea that they'd be mentioned as supporting the industry, in the business section of the New York Times, was enough to sway them.
As a result, it's almost impossible for these mugshot sites to ask clients to pay for record removal. There's almost no way for them to get paid. It's hard to see how they'll stay in business, at this point, as they'll have no revenue stream in place.
If they do stay in business, though, it's terrible for consumers. How will they get their photos removed? Will they be stuck there forever? These aren't questions anyone seems to be asking at this point, and that has me a little concerned.
But the damage doesn't end there.
Like me, the NYT reporter was confused about the placement of mugshot websites in Google search results. Since the sites have no original content, they don't belong at the top of the list. Presumably, the reporter asked the techs at Google about this, and their first response wasn't really helpful (I think the writer calls it a "shrug"). A few days later, however, the same reps drafted a modified response, saying that the team was adjusting the algorithm specifically because the sites seem to violate the company's guidelines.
Now, Google never discusses the changes they make to their codes. It's proprietary information, and if they shared it, they'd be providing companies with the keys they could use to boost their standings in searches. That's just a big no-no. However, it's fairly easy to see the impact of this change.
This afternoon, I ran a search for one women mentioned in the NYT article: Janese Trimaldi. She's a great example, as there's likely only one person with this name in the United States, and she has an online presence that goes beyond an arrest. At the time of the NYT interview, her mugshot was appearing on multiple mugshot websites, and she was wondering if she'd be able to get a job in her chosen industry. Now, I can find only one mention of a mugshot, and it's on Page 9 of my search results. When I expand the search to include duplicate entries that Google omits for me, the mugshot moves back even farther.
That might seem like a small change, but consider this. Prior to the Google algorithm switcheroo, the first thing I might know about Ms. Trimaldi was that she'd been arrested. That was my introduction to her, and it would color my first impression. Now, when I find out she's been arrested, it comes after I've seen her LinkedIn profile, her Pintrest page and a medical article she wrote. It's just a lot less damaging.
To some, this is a bigger change than those involving payment issues. It's the first change mentioned in this article by The Next Web, for example. That's an understandable position, as this algorithm change just makes mugshot sites seem a little less dangerous. If the mugshots are moving down, maybe they're not that harmful. But still, I think the lack of payment options is worth at least a smidge of worry.
Words of Wisdom
As a writer, I find these changes astounding. Who knew that a few questions from a reporter could change the way an entire industry does business? Perhaps we should get this writer to work on another problem that seems impossible. Cancer cure, anyone?
But in all seriousness, there is reason for caution here.
I don't think mugshot websites are gone for good. I think they'll have a little more work to do in order to stay in business, and I think their business model might change a little bit, but I don't think they're gone. Additionally, many websites that I visit as part of my work carry mugshot galleries, including:
These galleries sometimes pull from mugshot websites, and they can be just as damaging as the original mugshot website. These little galleries are also not penalized by Google at this time, as far as I can tell.
Plus, images that are buried still aren't gone. As soon as someone puts the word "mugshot" after your name on a search, up those photos will come. It's easy. And since there's no way for you to pay those sites to take your photos down, it's even more damaging. Once the photo is there, it seems like it's there to stay, unless you hire an expert.
So I still think there's room for panic, in terms of mugshot sites. But it will be interesting to see how the sites respond to today's changes. There's more to come, I'm sure.