Oddly enough I hadn’t heard of the term ‘Google bomb’ until recently which is a little weird considering I’m a digital geek right to the core and was pretty much raised by the Internet during my teenage years. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the whole insidious world of G-bombing was unveiled to me as one struck for the search term ‘English person’, resulting in the top search result for the phrase on Google being the Wikipedia entry for a rather offensive four letter word – the C-word, to be precise. Hilarious, rude, worrying and altogether a little depressing.
For those of you unfamiliar with Google bombing (like I was), it’s a essentially a mischievous prank pulled off by large number of incredibly bored people that causes high rankings for searches of (often comically) unrelated phrases. Classics include the Wikipedia page for George W. Bush ranking highly for the term ‘failure’, Tony Blair’s parliamentary biography for the term ‘liar’ and ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Facebook page coming up tops for the phrase “trou du cul du web”, loosely translated to “asshole of the Internet”.
Some clever pranksters even took advantage of Google’s ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button, which automatically takes you to the top search result for your entered phrase, to pull off great stunts like this result for searching for Chuck Norris and, perhaps the most infamous of them all, the the search result for the term ‘French military victories’. It seems link bombing has no mercy for either politicians or the French.
Of course, whilst Google bombing has been around since the early days of the Interweb, it’s not nearly as complex or convoluted to pull off as one might be led to believe. There’s no hacking of servers involved, no bypassing of firewalls, no backdoor database injections and certainly no penetrating of mainframes in montage sequences accompanied by mid-90s European techno music. To create a bomb, all you need to do is get enough different web sites linking the desired phrase to the desired source. Simples.
perhaps the most infamous of them all, the the search result for the term ‘French military victories’
The reason this works is because Google, and other search engines (I heard some still exist), place a lot of weight on the words themselves that are in the link to the source page. If sites link the phrase ‘cheese’ to the Wikipedia entry for ‘moon’, for instance, it will assume that the terms are related and, do it enough times, eventually your target web page will start to rank very highly. There are, of course, cheap tactics for automating this process and trying to cheat search engines into thinking legitimate sites are performing the linkage but the principle is unchanged.
And if you’re thinking that these techniques seems to expose a pretty big flaw the way search engine algorithms work, then you’re right. By placing so much emphasis on the words used within a link tag, SEs are allowing people to purposefully direct the gaze of search engines to completely unrelated content and artificially alter the rankings in a malicious or self-serving way, a technique that has been exploited by search engine optimisers and marketers for years (hell, they even organised contests about it). Frankly, the fact that Google bombs can still exist today shows just how much of a problem this is.
Fortunately though, Google and co are changing and working hard to become smarter, better and fairer in what they promote and how they promote it. They have the admirable goal of trying to give weight to the sites that deserve it the most, the ones with decent, usable content and are well-designed, well-structured and well-built. In turn, they want to demote and punish sites that try to cheat the system or ‘overly optimise’ themselves, as they put it, to gain an advantage over others. As such, Google bombing should also become a thing of the past.
Which is all great in principle apart from the fact that some sneaky sneaksters are exploiting this penalisation system by partaking in an activity known as Google bowling (I have no idea who comes up with these names either), in which they utilise black-hat and punishable techniques, such as Google bombing, but target their competitors instead of themselves. The result is Google thinks the competitors are cheating and unknowingly penalises their site. Clever eh?
Poor Google, I’d almost feel sympathetic towards them. Except for, y’know, the billions of dollars profit they rake in every year.