Feb. 17, 2009 at 7:43 PM ET
Web surfers who used Google.com to search for information on President Barack Obama on Tuesday afternoon were presented with a racial slur. The slur originated from Obama's Wikipedia entry, after a user had removed all content in Obama's entry and replaced it with three repeated words: a derogatory term for African-Americans.
Wikipedia.com's revision history records show that slur was only live for two minutes, with the Obama page edited to include the slur at 4:44 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (just before midnight ET) and the original content restored at 4:46.
But the slur lived on in Google search results. Anyone who Googled “Obama,” “Barack Obama,” or “President Barack Obama” was presented with a link to the Wikipedia reference page showing the racial slur , sometimes as high as the second result. It was removed about 4 p.m. ET after msnbc.com made inquiries to Google.
The slur was contained within a blurb of text called a "snippit," which Google presents on its initial results page to show users what they will see if they click on the link. Google's Wikipedia snippits generally include the first sentence or two of the Wikipedia entry.
Even though the slur was visible nearly 16 hours after the Wikipedia entry was changed, Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya said it's unclear how long it appeared on Google's site.
Google scans the Web constantly, updating its database of links and snippits. Unfortunately, Google grabbed the slur during the two-minute period that Wikipedia displayed it, he said. But Bencuya said it could have taken hours after it was indexed for it to appear on the site.
"I imagine it wasn't on there for very long, otherwise we would have received a lot of complaints," he said.
Wikipedia did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Wikipedia is collectively edited by its registered users, and nearly any entry is subject to such attacks. Politicians and other public figures are frequent targets of such attacks. Entries with racial slurs are normally removed quickly by other editors.