The top-ranked result for US first lady Michelle Obama on Google's image search engine last week was a racist caricature that depicted her with the face of a chimpanzee, just below a link to a suggested Google search for the terms "Michelle Obama Monkey".
The same image of Obama, which is currently hosted on Google's Blogger service, has appeared among the top image results on Google for at least two weeks, according to user complaints on Google's help forum.
The image also does not appear among image results when users search for "Michelle Obama" on its main search engine, only on the results produced by the image search engine.
"Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results, or images from our Google Images results, simply because the content is in very poor taste or because we receive complaints concerning it," a Google employee named Jem wrote on the forum last week.
Google's image search results rely "heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query," Jem wrote, adding that Google does remove images from its results when they violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines, the company is required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster responsible for the image.
The same message is contained in a company notice titled "Offensive Search Results" that appears as a sponsored result when users search for an image of Michelle Obama on Google.
"We apologise if you've had an upsetting experience using Google. We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results," it said.
A Google spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking information about how the Obama caricature became the top-ranked image result on the company's search engine.
One possibility is that the user who posted the image managed to game Google's search algorithm, perhaps by using large numbers of inbound links to boost its ranking on the search engine. However, gaming the search engine in this way would violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines, prompting the company to remove the image from its results. Since that hasn't happened, it suggests other factors may be involved.