The founder of Stagecoach is accusing Google of censoring him by dumping his personal website from their search engine results. Sir Brian Souter is a Scottish businessman who controversially funded a campaign in 2000 to keep the anti-gay legislation of Section 28 in the Local Government and Finance Act.
Could it be Sir Brian's controversial views on homosexuality that has taken him and his personal website www.briansouter.com out of favour with Google?
Souter's web and PR adviser Gordon Beattie thinks something is up and alleges that his client is being censored. Beattie stated yesterday:
It's not Google's place to decide which sites we can see and those we can't. It amounts to search engine censorship and it does not afford what Google says it is striving to create – a good user experience.
Souter's personal website used to be on the first page of results for his name, according to a statement released by Beattie, but on 13 August this year it dropped off and hasn't come back, despite Souter writing a letter to Google requesting more information about the change.
We wrote to Google on August 22 asking why Sir Brian's site was no longer listed on the search engine and the mumbled response was algorithm changes. They suggested one tweak to the website which we immediately made but to this day his site remains out of bounds on Google searches.
Souter gained a controversial profile in 2000 by putting £500,000 behind a campaign to block the reform of Section 28 (known as Clause 2A in Scotland) which forbade the mention of gay "lifestyles" as acceptable in schools. According to the BBC, Souter says he is not homophobic but doesn't believe in "promoting" homosexuality.
Souter's personal website is the third result for his name in the Bing and Yahoo search engines. Beattie has said that he and his employer are prepared to take the case to the Culture, Media and Sports Committee if the two of them receive no further help or explanation from Google.
Looking a little deeper, the results Google gives for "brian souter" offer more prominence to the controversy around Souter's stance on gay Britons than either Yahoo or Bing. On Google, at time of searching this morning, three of the top 10 results for his name were websites criticising his stance on Section 28 and gay rights, but none of the three critical articles (from Pink News, The Pink Paper and blog Left Foot Forward respectively) turn up in the top 10 search results for his name on Bing or Yahoo.
Google's suggested searches offer greater prominence to Souter's attempts to keep Section 28 on the lawbooks than other search engines too:
Tapping in "brian souter" on Google prompts searches for "brian souter stagecoach"; " brian souter knighthood"; "brian souter homophobia"; "brian souter gay"; and "brian souter trust".
While Bing only suggests "brian souter stagecoach".
And Yahoo suggests: "- stagecoach", "- foundation", "- and ann gloag", "- religion", "- biography", "- homophobia", "- referendum".
Is Google queering the pitch? Or is that just a better reflection of what people search for?
Souter's agency certainly thinks that the dumping of Souter's personal website suggests an agenda.
Google issued the statement:
Our search algorithm relies on more than 200 signals to help people find the answers they're looking for, and and last year alone we made more than 500 improvements to our algorithm, while experimenting with thousands more.
Souter's PR team had this to say about the Google results in general:
Google have only offered one element of advice through their PR representative. The advice was to configure a 301 redirect for the non-www version of briansouter.com to point to www.briansouter.com%c2%a0and to set a preferred domain. It was suggested that as briansouter.com resided at the registrar, that this can cause a "poor user experience".
We made the change they suggested and it made not one bit of difference. We will continue to pursue the matter with the Westminster Committee and we will make representations to the European Union antitrust probe into Google manipulation of search results.
We see this as an issue of free speech and we will be rolling out an energetic campaign against Google as we suspect other websites will have met with a similar fate.
We don’t have a clue as to why Sir Brian’s website has disappeared from Google’s search results. It may be for the reasons you suggest – we simply don’t know. What is interesting is the fact that the BBC story on Section 28 is 11 years old. We would urge you to ask Google why his site has been blocked.
You may find this interesting – if you type Brian Souter Official Website into Google what comes up at the bottom of Page 1 is a site that looks like Sir Brian’s, but it comes through a proxy service in the US that hosts a Bahrain activist blog. Why is Google promoting a proxy version of his website but not his own UK-hosted website?