Google on “Google-bombing”

by Mathew on September 21, 2005 · 3 comments

This is a story I posted on globetechnology.com about “Google-bombing” — in particular, the fact that typing “miserable failure” gets you a link to George Bush’s bio:

“It’s a tribute to the omnipresence of Google that the company’s name is used for a phenomenon that isn’t even specific to Google, but affects almost every search engine company, including Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. It’s called “google-bombing,” and you can get a glimpse of what it involves if you type the phrase “miserable failure” into Google’s search box, or even just the single word “failure.” The first result that comes up is a link to President George Bush’s biography at www.whitehouse.gov.

This is not a political comment by Google, but a result of the way the search engine operates, which involves ranking webpages based on how many other sites link to them using a specific term (a process Google calls PageRank). If a lot of websites use the word “failure” to link to George Bush’s biography, then Google’s automated engine concludes that his bio is the most relevant result for that term.

The phenomenon is not new. The first reported instance of it, according to wikipedia.org, was in 2001 when Adam Mathes — who coined the term — decided to use it to make his friend’s website the No. 1 result for the term “talentless hack.” And the words “miserable failure” have pointed to President Bush’s bio page since early last year.

Still, enough people have apparently complained about the practice that a Google executive wrote a response on the company’s blog last week (at googleblog.blogspot.com). Now when you search for “failure” or “miserable failure,” a link to this blog entry appears in the “sponsored links” section on the results page, where ads normally go.

In her response, director of consumer Web products Marissa Meyer says that while search results are produced by a computer program, “determined pranksters can occasionally produce odd results” such as the Bush link. Ms. Mayer says that while “we don’t condone the practice of googlebombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results,” the company is “reluctant to alter our results by hand” to prevent such results.

Although Ms. Mayer’s post doesn’t discuss the reasons for Google’s reluctance, it’s likely that the company doesn’t want to start fiddling with its search results for fear that it will be a slippery slope, and it will wind up having to rejig its searches for other reasons. Google has removed links in the past for legal reasons — including links to download sites for the file-sharing software Kazaa Lite in 2003 — but it has resisted doing so as much as possible. In that case, Google included a link to a letter it had received under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Interestingly, Google itself uses the term “google-bombing,” even though it looks down on the practice, and the same phenomenon affects other search engines. The word “failure” produces President Bush’s bio as the top link on MSN (although “miserable failure” turns up a link to a website critical of Senator Hilary Clinton). On Yahoo, the president’s bio is the second link for “failure” and the first for “miserable failure,” and it is the first link for the latter term on Ask Jeeves as well. The top result for “miserable failure” on AOL’s search engine page is a link to the website of film-maker Michael Moore, and the second result — on almost all the search engines — is a link to a biography of former president Jimmy Carter.

Google-bombing has been used for other things apart from making political statements. Last year, a website created a google-bombing contest, in which it gave away an Apple iPod Mini to the person who made their website the top link for the phrase “nigritude ultramarine.” And earlier this year, .net magazine had a similar contest that gave away prizes for the top link to the term “crystalline incandescence.”

A multi-level marketing company called Quixtar has also admitted to using the practice in order to rig Google’s results so that websites critical of the company wouldn’t appear as high in a search of its name.

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