Google's (and Inktomi's) Miserable Failure

By now, many have learned about how a search for miserable failure on Google brings up the official George W. Bush biography from the US White House web site. Dismissed by Google as not a problem, it points out a case where the real miserable failure is Google itself.

"Google Bombing" like this has happened in the past, and in general, it has little impact on most people. Making a site come up tops for a relatively obscure query such as "miserable failure," which brings back less than 200,000 matches, is much different than exercising some super-control over Google for popular or commonly-performed searches.

I've written about other examples of Google Bombing in the past (Google Bombs Aren't So Scary) and why I think it tends to be overplayed. But in this case, I find myself agreeing with The Register's Andrew Orlowski, who discussed how blogging activity might "googlewash" a term earlier this year. This is when the originating document or original meaning of a term is lost due to new material coming into the search results.

Unlike what Google claims in this latest incident, the results that currently come up for miserable failure do not "reflect the opinion on the web," nor is it true that "no user is hurt" or that there is no "clearly legitimate site for 'miserable failure' being pushed aside."

This Google Bombing was done by at most a few hundred links pointing at the biography, if that many. Google annoyingly makes it impossible to tell exactly how many links are involved using the term, but to say that this particular campaign is the same as the "opinion on the web" is absurd. So only a few hundred people are able to speak for millions of web users? This isn't the web's opinion -- it's a particular opinion on the web.

Users are also hurt, because there are indeed "legitimate" sites for this query that get knocked down in the results.

What's a legitimate site? Seems like the Dick Gephardt For President site deserves top ranking, since he appears to have christened Bush's administration a "miserable failure" as part of his campaign slogan. In short, Gephardt's site is an originating source for this term and actually provides much more useful information for those wondering how it relates to Bush than the biography prank.

Rather than be first, Gephardt is ranked eighth. Only two weeks ago, he was ranked third. At this rate, the game Google's happy for people to play (see new entries of Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Michael Moore) will have pushed Gephardt's site out of the top results and into oblivion altogether.

Another good listing is an article from the Atlantic Monthly that explores how Gephardt is using "miserable failure" as part of his campaign to attack Bush. Again, this is a far more useful site for users than ranking the Bush biography first. Only two weeks ago, this was ranked second. Now the gaming has pushed it to fifth.

Calling Google Bombing "cybergraffiti" as the New York Times does is appropriate. Google did have good listings for this query, for the few who were probably doing it before this prank emerged. Now, Google appears happy for this blogging campaign (and now new ones) to spray paint whatever it wants above more relevant listings.

Again, most of the time this isn't a big deal. Arguing who should be number one for "talentless hack," a past Google Bomb, is more of an amusement. But "miserable failure" is a campaign slogan in a major US presidential race. What comes up for it matters much more.

By the way, Inktomi also has Bush's biography coming up for miserable failure, underscoring that link manipulation isn't just a Google problem. It's a challenge that Google's most direct crawler-competitor also faces. But Teoma, which uses a unique form of link analysis, has escaped the bombing.

There's at least some good news for Bush. His former campaign store web site is no longer number one on Google for what I'll euphemistically call a search for "dumb Oedipus," as was the case back at the beginning of 2001.

NOTE: There have been many developments since this story was originally written. Search Engine Watch members have access to the Link Bombing page that categorizes some related stories. See also the Googlebombing Now A "Prank" And Not Web's Opinion, Says Google article from Sept. 2005.