Googlebombing Now A “Prank” And Not Web’s Opinion, Says Google

What’s old is new again — and apparently controversial still. Specifically, the entire [miserable failure] search that brings up the official George W. Bush biography — a story from late 2003 — has been resurrected and escalated to warrant a comment on the official Google Blog itself. What caused this and how did we go from that Googlebomb being the “web’s opinion” to a prank? Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale….

The original story of the miserable http://cms.searchenginewatch.comure query is covered in my Google’s (and Inktomi’s) Miserable Failure article from January 2004. It talks about how a “google bombing” campaign in December 2003 involving at most a few hundred links caused the official George W. Bush biography to rank tops at Google and Inktomi (now owned by Yahoo).

I was kind of ticked at Google’s response to comments over the entire thing. It wasn’t that I felt Bush should or should not be there. It was that at that time, I did indeed feel there were more “legit” pages that might come up for that search, pages that were being pushed aside by the “cybergraffiti” of link bombing, as the New York Times called it.

Moreover, Google told the New York Times that the results for that query “just reflect the opinion on the web.” I disagreed. A few hundred links weren’t reflective of the entire web’s opinion. They were reflective of a particular opinion on the web, and one being heavily influenced by the fact that an originally obscure term was being manipulated purposely.

If this had been the result of some type of active search marketing campaign — say someone who bought a few hundred links, or a company that bartered such links, or someone who got the links through some type of link exchange program — Google’s response might have been different. Then it might have decided it needed to intercede in the results. But since it was chalked up as the “web’s opinion,” Google felt no need.

Why is this back in the news? My Looking At Google Bombs, But Not Very Well post from last week goes into this. In particular, this person earlier this month stumbled upon the fact that a search for [failure] on Google brings back the Bush bio at first, a slightly new twist but one already three months old. This person picked up on the post, noting that MSN lists the Michael Moore site instead. That got the attention of widely-read Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, who posted briefly about it.

So new life was injected into an old corpse, and what an impact! I started getting email from people recently about the queries because they’re coming across the older article I did. I assume Google is on that receiving end as well, since on today’s Google blog, director of consumer web products Marissa Mayer commented on the query:

If you do a Google search on the word [failure] or the phrase [miserable failure], the top result is currently the White Houseï¿œs official biographical page for President Bush. We’ve received some complaints recently from users who assume that this reflects a political bias on our part. I’d like to explain how these results come up in order to allay these concerns.

Google’s search results are generated by computer programs that rank web pages in large part by examining the number and relative popularity of the sites that link to them. By using a practice called googlebombing, however, determined pranksters can occasionally produce odd results. In this case, a number of webmasters use the phrases [failure] and [miserable failure] to describe and link to President Bush’s website, thus pushing it to the top of searches for those phrases. We don’t condone the practice of googlebombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results, but we’re also reluctant to alter our results by hand in order to prevent such items from showing up. Pranks like this may be distracting to some, but they don’t affect the overall quality of our search service, whose objectivity, as always, remains the core of our mission.

My observations on this latest statement:

  • Notice what was the “web’s opinion” in 2003 now becomes a “prank.”
  • Pranks, when not involving paid links or for some commercial gain, are apparently tolerated. Pranks involving commercial gain may be deemed spam and so threatening to the purity of the index that sites might be banned, be prevented from passing link reputation or other actions.
  • Google has flat out said in the past they don’t hand manipulate their results. What they’ve meant, as I explained in my Google In Controversy Over Top-Ranking For Anti-Jewish Site article, is that they don’t try to manipulate what ranks well for a particular term. They do hand manipulate from the point of view of removing sites from their index for various reasons.

    This latest Google post is specifically about the manipulation of rankings, rather than site banning — and it’s noteworthy that rather than having a flat out denial, Google is simply saying it is “reluctant” to alter rankings by hand. That suggest that in some cases, they might do this.

    Realistically, I think this was bad wording on the part of Google. I suspect they still don’t hand manipulate rankings, as they’ve long said they wouldn’t do.

Finally, I’ve long called Google bombing instead “link bombing,” because these so-called “Google bombs” go off on other places aside from just Google.

Indeed, a quick review today shows the Bush bio at the top of results for a search on [miserable failure] at Ask Jeeves, Google and Yahoo and ranked ninth at MSN. For just [failure], the bio is tops at Google and second at Yahoo and MSN — no presence at all at Ask Jeeves. FYI, AOL’s Google-powered results don’t show the Bush bio because of specific hand manipulation AOL does.

Given this, I find it bizarre public relations, at the very least, for Google to be embracing the term “googlebombing” itself, since that implies it’s a problem that only Google has, as opposed to the industry as a whole.

I’ll stick with link bombing myself, but who knows, maybe I’ll have to bend to popular pressure that will no doubt be further fueled by Google’s own statement.

Postscript from Gary:Here in the U.S. it appears that Google is running an ad for the search terms [miserable failiure]. The ad reads:

Why these results? These results may seem politically slanted. Here’s what happened.

A link to the Google Blog post about linkbombs is included. Here’s a screen cap of the results page and ad.

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