re interne politics

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Thu Jan 22 2004 - 12:26:11 PST

Engineering Google Results to Make a Political Point

January 22, 2004


TIME was - say, two months ago - when typing the phrase
"miserable failure" into the Google search box produced an
unexpected result: the White House's official biography of
President George W. Bush.

But now the president has a fight on his hands for the top
ranking - from former President Jimmy Carter, Senator
Hillary Rodham Clinton and the author-filmmaker Michael

The unlikely electoral battle is being waged through
"Google bombing," or manipulating the Web's search engines
to produce, in this case, political commentary. Unlike Web
politicking by other means, like hacking into sites to
deface or alter their message, Google bombing is a group
sport, taking advantage of the Web-indexing innovation that
led Google to search-engine supremacy.

The perpetrators succeed by recruiting a small group of
accomplices to link from their Web sites to a target site
using specific anchor text (the clickable words in a link).
The more high-traffic sites that link a Web page to a
particular phrase, the more Google tends to associate that
page with the phrase - even if, as in the case of the
president's official biography, the term does not occur on
the destination site.

"I'm actually surprised how easy it was to do," said the
mastermind of the Bush effort, George Johnston, 46, a
computer programmer in Bellevue, Wash., who writes a
liberal-leaning Web log called Old Fashioned Patriot
( "It took about six
weeks to get Bush's biography as the No. 1 result. I had no
idea when I started that I'd get people all over the world

Google bombing has quickly become an armchair sport among
those who have a message to broadcast and perhaps a bit too
much time on their hands. For nearly a year, the No. 1
search result on Google for the term "weapons of mass
destruction" has been a satirical Web page made to resemble
an error message that reads, "These Weapons of Mass
Destruction Cannot Be Displayed."

The Liberty Round Table, a libertarian group, started a
Google bomb that linked the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group, with the term
"food Nazis." (As a follow-up, the group is trying to make
the Internal Revenue Service site the No. 1 Google result
for the term "organized crime.") Other recent Google bombs
have sought to associate President Bush, Senator Clinton
and Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, with
various unprintable phrases.

Google plays down the significance of Google bombing,
saying the search results merely reflect what is actually
happening on the Web.

"We're only seeing it with obscure queries where there's
really not that much action on the Web about them," said
Craig Silverstein, Google's director of technology. "I
don't think it's possible to do this sort of thing on
queries with well-defined results like ' I.B.M.' So given
that it only affects one query out of the more than 200
million a day we handle, it's hard to see it becoming much
of a problem."

But some in the industry say Google may be more worried
than it lets on. The company's success, to a large extent,
has been built on its search algorithm's ability to return
relevant Web pages and weed out irrelevant or outright
bogus results. The growing popularity of Google bombing
can't be a welcome development for a company that is
expected to begin selling stock to the public in a few

"Google says they're just reflecting what's on the Web, but
they're actually reflecting a very small number of people
who are trying to manipulate the system," said Danny
Sullivan, who edits Search Engine Watch
( "Google bombing will never go
away, but Google has got to make it less rewarding for
people to spend time doing this."

Google certainly isn't the only search engine whose results
can be gamed by users acting in concert. President Bush's
biography is also the No. 1 search result for "miserable
failure" on Yahoo, which draws on Google's technology and
that of HotBot; it's the No. 2 result on MSN Search. All
search engines, to varying degrees, analyze links in
calculating the relevancy of a page for a particular query.
Seed the Web with enough links pointing to the same site
using the same anchor text, and you alter the search
results. The effect is magnified with less popular search
phrases, since there are far fewer competing links.

Some Google bombs may have been accomplished with as few as
20 links. What is important is not the number of links, but
rather the popularity of the sites doing the linking and
the relative obscurity of the search term.

Bombers aim at Google for the same reason Willie Sutton
robbed banks - that's where the payoff is. Google handles
more than 200 million requests a day and has a 34.9 percent
share of online searches in the United States. The nearest
rival is Yahoo, with 27.7 percent, according to comScore
Networks, which tracks consumer behavior.

People have tried to manipulate results ever since search
engines appeared on the Web in 1995. An industry of "search
engine optimizers" has grown up around the practice of
tweaking a company's Web site so that it ranks high for
certain keywords. Less ethical optimizers create shadow
domains that funnel users to a site through misleading
redirects or set up bogus doorway pages festooned with
nothing but keywords.

Search engines forbid this kind of blatant gaming for
commercial purposes, and Google regularly banishes sites
from its search engine for such practices. But search
engines cannot do much to deter groups of legitimate sites
and blogs from working in concert to alter search results,
as is happening with the Google bombs.

The first Google bomb exploded in the fall of 1999, when a
search for the term "more evil than Satan himself" returned
Microsoft's home page as the first result. At the time,
Google denied that its search algorithm had been a victim
of a prank. Rather, the company insisted, the ranking was
an accurate reflection of the Web's many Microsoft critics
referring to the company, independently of one another, as
being more evil than Satan himself. But subsequent bombs
made it clear that the Microsoft result was probably no

Adam Mathes, a blogger and computer science major at
Stanford, is generally credited with having coined the term
"Google bombing" almost three years ago to describe the
practice of manipulating Google results through seeding the
Web with links. Mr. Mathes started a Google bomb as a joke
at the expense of a friend and graphic artist, Andy
Pressman, managing to get Mr. Pressman's blog listed as the
first result for the phrase "talentless hack." Mr. Mathes
later interviewed for a job at Google and felt compelled to
confess his campaign.

"It was definitely a big thing for them," Mr. Mathes said.
"They told me, 'Yes, we've had many meetings about Google
bombing.' I don't think that's why I didn't get the job,
but it probably wasn't the best career move."

Lately, Google bombs have taken a political turn. As
coalition forces were poised to invade Iraq in March, Steve
Lerner, a 22-year-old blogger and student at York
University in Toronto, created a parody page of a Google
search for "French military victories," which stated that
no documents were found and suggested as an alternative
search, "Did you mean: French military defeats?"

Mr. Lerner did not set out to game Google; his exploit
turned out to be a kind of accidental bombing. Mr. Lerner
simply posted the parody page on his blog (www, where other bloggers began linking
to it. Before long, the expanding lattice of links
propelled the page to No. 1 with a bullet. The parody page
still enjoys the top Google slot.

"I was just one small factor in the whole thing," Mr.
Lerner said. "I put some links to the page and then some
other people put links to it, and it just spread."

In late October, Mr. Johnston, a self-described "lefty,''
started a Google bomb to tie Mr. Bush's biography to the
phrase "miserable failure," watchwords used by the
presidential campaign of Representative Richard A.
Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, to describe Mr. Bush's

Success came just six weeks into the campaign. Mr. Johnston
says he is not sure how many links it took to capture the
No. 1 spot, but a handful of blogs played a major role,
including TalkLeft ( and Media Whores
Online (www

"The reason it worked is that there were enough like-minded
people who thought it was funny and spread it around," Mr.
Johnston said. "It has to be something that makes people
laugh or captures their imagination."

Of course, not everyone was laughing. When as the
president's biography went to No. 1 for "miserable
failure," some conservatives were convinced that so-called
liberal control of the media had now been extended to
search engines. A visitor to the comments page of, a conservative news forum, suggested a
boycott of Google and lamented: "How much longer are we
going to have to put up with liberal bias in the media!
It's bad enough that they have NPR but Google???"

A few tech-savvy posters later explained how Google bombs
work, and now forum members are supporting a counterbomb to
tie "miserable failure" to Michael Moore. (Mr. Moore is
already the No. 1 listing for the term on AOL search.)

Google maintains that such activity still is not hurting
the overall quality of its service. The company says it
expects Google bombing will soon go the way of most Web

"It's the kind of thing people enjoy doing once because
it's fun to be able to put up a page that can have a
powerful effect," Mr. Silverstein said. "But it's not
something people are going to want to spend their lives

Clearly, anyone who goes through life trying to manipulate
search engine results would have to be called a miserable
failure. And how many of them can there be?


Get Home Delivery of The New York Times Newspaper. Imagine
reading The New York Times any time & anywhere you like!
Leisurely catch up on events & expand your horizons. Enjoy
now for 50% off Home Delivery! Click here:

For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters
or other creative advertising opportunities with The
New York Times on the Web, please contact or visit our online media
kit at

For general information about, write to
help who-is-at

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Feb 01 2004 - 01:00:10 PST