Blowing up Google: Tailored search results make statements

Google searches are a staple of any student’s life. But even with the world’s most comprehensive search engine, you don’t always find what you’re looking for, or expect.

Google the word “failure” or the phrase “miserable failure” and the first of more than 200 million sites to appear is the White House biography of President Bush. This is not a political statement from Google, but rather a Web phenomenon known as “Google bombing.”

Google bombing changes the ranking of a Web site in the results returned by a Google search. This is possible because Google results are not just an index of the words found on a site, but also the words used to link to the site. In other words, the blue, clickable text that Internet users link to Web sites becomes a searchable term for that site.

“(Google bombing) has a negative connotation because the most successful ones are jokes, but it’s part of how the system works. It’s the heart of the engine,” said George Johnston, a software engineer from Washington, whose blog “Old Fashioned Patriot” is credited with beginning the “miserable failure” Google bomb.

Blogger Adam Mathes coined the term Google bombing back in 2001, when he linked a friend’s Web site to the words “talentless hack” as a joke. Other bloggers joined in, and soon enough, his friend’s site became the number one result in a Google search for the phrase.

“What you say about a page (is) just as important as the actual content of the page,” Mathes wrote on his blog.

Since then, Google bombing has become a game among bloggers and Internet users wanting to make political or personal statements.

In the buildup to the war in Iraq, Googling “French military victories” turned up a page asking users if they meant “French military defeats.” More recently, Googling “weapons of mass destruction” led to a fake error page that read, “The weapons of mass destruction cannot be displayed.”

GW graduate Ali Khoshgozaran was one of the leaders of a highly publicized Google bomb in 2004 that united thousands of Iranian bloggers from around the world in order to pressure National Geographic to change its world atlas to read “Persian Gulf” rather than “Arabian Gulf.”

“For us who had no other means to voice our message to the world, this was the most efficient solution,” said Khoshgozaran, who received his master’s degree from GW in 2004.

Khoshgozaran and his friends began the Google bomb and within a week had influenced the ranking results so that the first result for a search of the term “Arabian Gulf” was a fake error page that read, “The Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Try Persian Gulf.”

“We wanted to show our concern and to uncover the real truth behind National Geographic’s choice of bogus names,” Khoshgozaran said.

Within a month National Geographic removed “Arabian Gulf” from their maps, Khoshgozaran said.

The site remained the No. 1 hit for about a year afterwards, Khoshgozaran said. It is currently the 11th result.

Unlike Khoshgozaran’s ruse, most Google bombs fade away quickly. The longevity of a Google bomb hinges on the popularity of its terms, with highly sought after phrases being more difficult to bomb, Johnston said.

For example, right-wing bloggers Google bombed Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 campaign Web site, so that it became the first result for a search of the word “waffles,” in reference to criticisms that he frequently changed positions on issues. The bomb quickly faded because of the popularity of the search term, Johnston said.

Given the difficulty of maintaining a Google bomb, Johnston said he is surprised that the “miserable failure” bomb has lasted for more than two years.

“When we first hit number one, I took a picture because I didn’t think it would last for long,” he said.

Johnston said the bomb has been so successful partly because most companies do not want to be associated with searchable terms such as failure, but also because Bush has “outraged the world.”

If Bush’s biography were to fall from the number one slot, Johnston said he would be disappointed, but would not try Google bomb it again.

“It’s old news in the blog world,” Johnston said. Google bombing has lost popularity among bloggers because it “became too easy,” he added.

Despite their prominence, Google bombs “do not affect the overall quality of Google search results,” wrote Google spokesperson Megan Quinn in an e-mail.

Johnston said he does not feel that Google bombs jeopardize the integrity of search engines or misleads Internet users.

“Considering the latest polls,” Johnston said. “It actually seems kind of prophetic.”

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