The SEO Behind Mugshot Websites

The SEO Behind Mugshot Websites


I was quoted in “Mugged by a Mugshot Online” in Sunday’s New York Times talking about the concept of the “long click” helping for-profit mugshot sites rank high in Google, but the Times article understandably left out a lot of the deeper SEO details. To paint a fuller picture of what signals Mugshots.com, JustMugshots.com, and BustedMugshots.com gave off that allowed these sites to “monetize humiliation” and caused Google to unwittingly ruin people’s reputations, I present this post.

First, to quickly recap the Times article, when someone is arrested, a booking photo (“mugshot”) is taken of them and kept at the police station. These mugshots are then made freely available online on the police departments’ websites for the civic good. Mugshot websites then crawl all these police department websites downloading all their mugshot photos and upload them to their own site. Those in the mugshot photos then find that these sites rank highly when they Google their name, hurting their reputation and being asked for payment if they want their photo removed. Worse of all, even if an arrest didn’t lead to a conviction or someone turned their life around since, these mugshot photos are always online and paying for removal on one site doesn’t mean the photo won’t pop up elsewhere. The reason for all this is SEO.

SEO is the process of influencing the signals that the search engine algorithm looks for when it matches pages to a searcher’s query and determines the order of those pages. A big reason mugshot websites are able to rank highly for names is because there’s not a lot of competing content on the web relevant to the name. Most people don’t have personal blogs (especially those most likely to get arrested) and the content that most of us create on the web is on social networks like Facebook which isn’t indexed by Google.

Facebook indexation
Even though my setting on Facebook for “Do you want other search engines to link to your timeline?” is turned on, this is still all that Google sees of my Facebook page.

Furthermore, even when social media profiles like LinkedIn do rank on the first page of search results for a name, as soon as a mugshot result appears on the first page, often the mugshot result will start moving up. This is in part due to two ways Google measures quality:

  1. How often people click on a given result. A mugshots.com result is way more attention-grabbing than a LinkedIn profile or any other result. Even the title of their search result reinforces that this must be the person you Googled because it says their city (e.g. “Alfred Gene Wilsea Mugshot – Iosco County, MI”), or worse, something like “ERIC BUTKIEWICZ: Man arrested for allegedly selling Xanax on July 4th”. It’s the first thing anybody would click.
  2. Taking into account “long clicks” i.e., how long someone stays on the page they just clicked before returning to the search results. If you search for someone’s name and click to a site like mugshots.com and see someone you know or are to meet, you probably are shocked and not going back to the search results right away.

These mugshot sites have over a million pages of photos though. How does Google even find them all and determine their importance from one another? The answer is good site structure and internal linking. For example, mugshots.com has a multi-level directory that ensures multiple pathways for search engine spiders to crawl all their content. JustMugshots.com has an XML Sitemap (http://www.justmugshots.com/sitemap.xml) that instructs search engine spiders about the page structure of their site, how often page content is updated, and when new content is added. Furthermore, they all have fresh content on their home pages to signal to search engine spiders to keep returning frequently for new content.

Mugshots.com Directory
Mugshots.com classifies mugshot photos into fine-grained categories which ensures search engines spiders don’t miss anything. At the top of the page they have deep links to the most interesting mugshots, which tells search engines these are important as well as draws people’s attention so they’ll stay on the site longer.

The last reason mugshot sites rank so well is that other sites with high credibility link back to them. Google likens the relationship to a democracy, whereby “sites have been ‘voted’ to be the best sources of information.”

Mugshots.com has the best backlink profile out of the 3.

Mugshot site backlink comparison
Class C subnets is the most important metric to look at to determine which site is more powerful

I’d sum up all 3 site’s backlink profiles as a combination of: people angry with them, people in support of them (freedom of information ralliers), people using their mugshot photos as sources, and spam generated by the sites themselves (mostly comment spam which seems to have slowed). It’s also interesting that there are some names that these sites specifically build links for. It seems to be a mixture of celebrities, gangsters, and people in the news like Tamerlan Tsarnaev. What they’re doing is trying to rank for “[famous/infamous person's name] + mugshot” which is harder to do than ranking for random Joe Schmoe who got arrested thus link building is necessary.

The most interesting links though come from media coverage of the mugshot sites. By talking about how sites like mugshots.com impairs lives and is a paid unpublishing scam, they often link to the sites in question, passing the news organization’s authority to them and in turn boosting their authority. Here’s some big news sites that have made this mistake:

All these publications would have needed to do is use the “nofollow” tag on the link and it wouldn’t have passed value. Instead, media coverage of mugshot sites resulted in negative manifestations of their original intent.

Another type of link that helped mugshot sites’ authority were auto-generated links from The Huffington Post and MSN.

The Huffington Post

HuffPo links
HuffPo includes mugshots.com in their “around the web” list of links, which I believe is automatically generated based on the article content. I wouldn’t be surprised if sites listed here have to pay; you’ll have to ask HuffPo.

MSN

To cross promote their search engine, MSN includes at the bottom of articles a "find more on this topic with bing" which lists search results related to the article.
To cross promote their search engine, Bing, MSN includes at the bottom of articles a “find more on this topic with Bing” which lists search results related to the article.

So despite no technical obstacles to indexation, an easy-to-understand site structure, relevant fresh content, and high authority, what made these mugshot sites “run afoul of a Google guideline”?

Though Google never says, I’d place my bets on violations of the duplicate content and little or no original content guidelines. A Search Engine Land opinion piece from February 2013 titled “Why Google Should Crack Down Harder On The Mugshot Extortion Racket” digs into the topic deeper.

Ultimately it was an “editorial” decision that Google had to make, says Emily Bell, Director of Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Do you think Google and MasterCard made the right decision? Will mugshot sites re-optimize to stay within Google’s guidelines and come back stronger? Sound off below.

About Doug Pierce

Founder of Cogney and called "an expert in online search" by The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/pECCYz), I help great websites reach more people in more places, more often.

5 Responses to “The SEO Behind Mugshot Websites”

  1. Cry For Help

    2013-11-20T15:11:06+00:00

    Thank you for the very informative article. It all makes sense now. It also saddens me even more. Google has been receiving such high praise from hundreds of people because of the supposed algorithm remedy. It was very short lived by many including me. Shortly after being able to start sleeping for a few nights, siterunning.info was on page one of Google with a mug to boot. I got a DUI first offense in 2002, was not convicted. I tried asking them to take down info and face, they wanted 150. I reported them to google also reported mug as offensive nothing. I filed complaint with Florida state Attorney General, signed petition for bill to be passed like other states have done against the mugshot sites,emailed state reps including President Obama. All is lost if no one will help us. I guess ruining people’s lives by building 80 plus sites with old and duplicate info and making tons of money is acceptable to google and everyone else. Even people not convicted have no hope unless they have deep pockets. Now only god is left to ask. When I ask, I will ask him to forgive everyone who supports these true criminals too.

    Reply
    • Randall Layman

      2013-12-09T14:49:58+00:00

      Just pay the money … Jez. You spent all that time with complaints. Just pay the money. $150 that’s nothing. And also don’t drink and drive or associate with crazy people (there are a lot of them).

      Reply
      • Dumbfounded

        2014-01-14T01:54:47+00:00

        Wow….which mugshot site are you a sock puppet for Randall?? Probably all of them. You are either ignorant or delusional. 150 just covers 1 website out of about Eighty that you probably work for. Don’t judge unless you know the facts. You are just one of those that have done that and or probably worse and just have not gotten caught. It is truly disturbing to see how people have become.,,,truly.

        Reply
        • Randall Layman

          2014-01-16T17:07:35+00:00

          I do not work for any mugshot websites although I work in related fields. I have have some “special powers” and I have removed mugshots for friends and family. I understand the wish for removal but in reading the story I saw a lot of flailing around, making trouble, and ineffectiveness. The amount of time and aggravation that was put into doing nothing was more than the $150 cost. Most people are not going to have to spend more than $500 in total for the mugshot removal. If there career and reputation are worth, they will spend the money instead of wasting time. My time is valuable. I was not saying that the mugshot sites are right, just that time is valuable. Good luck.

          Reply
          • Dumbfounded "but" Listening

            2014-01-17T21:42:18+00:00

            Sir, with all due respect, and I mean that, I did not start the trouble. The Mugshot websites did. They have caused a lot of pain and grief over this. This was a mistake…and I mean A mistake almost 12 years ago for a crime that did not result in a conviction. NOTHING negative has happened since or before this event. I understand what you are saying, but, $500.00 is not an option for many of us. Some of us just barely pay bills now. I do not think that it is right for these “people” which is hard for me to call them that… are allowed to create these sites and post OLD outdated information of people that have move passed these events…have not been convicted..ect. The Mugshot sites are the criminals…not me. I do not deserve to be continually punished and now shunned by many for this. My spouse forgave me 12 years ago when it happened. I am not the only one being punished….he and my family are too. If I had the money…..I would have taken care of this already…maybe would have contacted you as this is what you apparently do… even though having someone pay money to have old articles and mugshots taken down for a crime that they were not convicted for is a crime in itself. I do not have that kind of money to “flail” around.. Asking Florida Legislation…FL Attny Gen…has not helped… Google him haws around all of this. I am not sure why these “people: are being supported for this…I really do not. Thank you for your response sir. Good luck to you as well. Your time is valuable, so is mine, but thank you for taking the time to read this.

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