Google Time Bomb

Will Weblogs ruin Google’s search engine?

Last April, Stanford University student Adam Mathes played a joke on his friend Andy Pressman. Mathes’ goal: Make Pressman’s Web site the No. 1 Google search result for “talentless hack.” The method: Encourage as many people with Web sites as possible to link to Pressman’s site using those words. (Like this: Andy “talentless hack” Pressman.) The prank worked. A year later, Pressman’s Web site is still Google’s No.1 search result for the phrase. Mathes even invented a name for his joke: “Google Bombing.”

Before Google, search engines ranked Web pages primarily by examining the content of each page, with decidedly mixed results. Google improved upon this system by taking into account the links that connect the billions of pages on the World Wide Web. If lots of Web sites link to Slate, for example, Google takes that as a vote of confidence in Slate, and moves Slate higher when it sorts a search for the word “slate.” (Click here for Google’s explanation of how its search technology works.)

Mathes discovered that the words that site owners use to link to a page affect Google’s rankings, too. Pressman’s site didn’t contain the words “talentless hack,” but because so many sites linked to his site using those words, Google figured he must be one. In Google’s judgment, a Web page “must be what other people say it is,” Mathes wrote. “In a bizarre surreal bow to the power of perception on the web, what you say about a page becomes just as important as the actual content of the page.”

And because Google’s search technology relies so heavily on links, Weblogs (those constantly updated personal Web sites like Kausfiles.com, AndrewSullivan.com, and InstaPundit.com) can have a tremendous impact on Google’s search results. Google searches favor Weblogs because they’re sites that contain freshly updatedcontent with lots of links. Conceivably, Weblogs could unleash powerful Google Bombs and threaten the legendary accuracy of the world’s favorite search engine.

Since Mathes planted that first Google Bomb, the practice has spread throughout the blogging community. Here are four types of Google Bombs whose fuses have already been lit:

1. Humor Bombs. Mathes’ original Google Bomb remains the classic of this genre. It’s pretty funny to see your friend come up in Google as the No. 1 talentless hack  in the whole world. Successful humor bombs, like most Google Bombs, require search key words that don’t get a lot of traffic.

2. Ego Bombs. Many bloggers want to be the top search result for their first name or full name. Free-lance writer David Gallagher posted this plea on his site: “I’ve decided that I want to be the most famous David Gallagher on the Internet, and if you have a Web site, you can help. How? Link to this site like so: David Gallagher.” As of March 22, he’s ranked No. 3 in Google.

3. Money Bombs. So far, no one’s paying bloggers to set off Google Bombs, but the practice is probably inevitable. Last month, Weblogger Brig Eaton floated the idea, saying that her father would be willing to pay to get his site Google Bombed into the No. 1 search result for “Santa Cruz real estate.” A week and a few (free) links later, www.santacruzrealty.net had moved from the No. 189 Google result to No. 39.

True, businesses could buy ads on Google instead of buying Google Bombs. But most businesses would prefer the “credibility” of being the top Google search result rather than a sponsored link on the page. In fact, santacruzrealty.net buys Google ads, but Eaton says that Google’s search results send almost five times more traffic to santacruzrealty.net than the ads do.

4. Justice Bombs. Angry Webloggers can mete out vigilante justice by Google Bombing sites that violate the bloggers’ standards for Internet ethics. Matt Haughey, founder of the community Weblog MetaFilter, lobbed the most famous Justice Bomb at Critical IP, a corporation he accused of telemarketing to domain-name owners after obtaining phone numbers from an Internet database. Haughey posted his outrage on his personal Weblog and urged readers: “If you feel like sharing this message with anyone else, just copy this HTML and post on your site: Critical IP sucks. Which results in: Critical IP sucks.” A posse of bloggers carried out the plan, and Haughey’s personal site—and its criticism of Critical IP—became the No. 1 result for Google searches for “Critical IP.”

One month later, however, Haughey’s Google Bomb was down to No. 62. Most Google Bombs wreak only temporary havoc. The reason: Google weights links more heavily if they are on a Web site’s front page. As a result, most Google Bombs defuse in about a month, as blog posts are archived.

But with some forethought, Google Bombs can do permanent damage. Teams of people working together can manipulate Google’s rankings, as mapped out in this essay on the Church of Scientology. The author alleges that the Church of Scientology has bought hundreds of domain names and linked them all to each other (and to Scientology-friendly Web sites) in an effort to promote the pages on Google. (Some bloggers have struck back with their own Google Bomb. They’ve achieved some short-term success, getting Operation Clambake, an anti-Scientology site, as high as the No. 4 slot for Google searches for “Scientology.”)

For now, Google isn’t worried. “We love the Weblog community,” said Google’s Peter Norvig. “We don’t see any problems with Google Bombs yet. You would need a concerted effort to abuse Google. What we’re seeing now is independent nodes acting alone.”

He’s right. So far, most Google Bombs have come from individual blogs, each creating Ego Bombs to capture the No. 1 slot for their first name. And that’s just fine with Google. “We like to keep things fun,” Norvig explains. “Besides, if your first name is Madonna, you’re going to have a hard time.”