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Google Bombs Explained

What in the World is a Google Bomb?

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Google Bomb

Illustration by Marziah Karch

"Google bombs" are collective efforts to link to a site by a key phrase and artificially elevate a Web site in the Google search results for that search phrase. Google bombs rely heavily on the influence of PageRank. Some Google bombs are politically motivated, while others are done as pranks, and some may have been motivated by ego or self promotion.

 

Miserable Failure

Perhaps the best known Google bomb was the phrase "miserable failure." This bomb was created in 2003. The search phrase "miserable failure," was bombed to rank the biography of George W Bush as the top result for that search, even though the phrase "miserable failure" does not appear anywhere within his biography.

This bomb was set up at the urging of political blogger, George Johnston.

Since then, others have made counter efforts to link the words "miserable failure" to Web pages of others, including Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore, and Hillary Clinton. The biography of Bush has also been linked to other phrases, such as "worst president ever" and "great president."

 

Why Did This Work?

Although Google's exact algorithms for ranking search results are a mystery, we do know that PageRank plays a roll. Google's search engine tends to think that the words used in the link to a particular source reflect some of the content of the source. If many people link to an article using a particular phrase, such as "using Google effectively," Google will assume that "using Google effectively" is related to the content of the page, even if that particular phrase isn't used within the page itself.

To make the Bush Google bomb, enough people just had to create a hyperlink from the phrase "miserable failure."

 

What Did Google Do About the Bomb?

Initially, Google did nothing to alter the search results. Google issued a link to a statement at the top of the search results page for "miserable failure" and "failure".

Basically, rather than try to guess which search results came from Google bombing efforts and which occurred naturally, Google elected to leave things as they were.

The September 2005 statement from Google concludes with,

"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."

Google has since rethought this position and altered their algorithm to eliminate many bombs.

Google Bombs as Sport

Some search engine fans hold contests to see who can get the highest ranking in the search results for nonsense phrases, such as "Hommingberger Gepardenforelle" or "nigritude ultramarine."

Since they use nonsense phrases, these search contests do not disrupt normal searching. They do, however, sometimes encourage "comment spam" or comments in blogs and guestbooks with links to the competing Web site, and this can be annoying to non-participating bloggers.

What Lessons Do Google Bombs Teach Webmasters?

I am not encouraging anyone to make Google bombs or participate in search engine optimization (SEO) contests. However, we can analyze Google bombs to learn about effective SEO techniques.

The most important lesson from Google bombs is that the phrase you use to hyperlink to another Web page is important. Do not link to documents with "click here." Use anchor text that describes your document, and try to use the same words consistently. For instance, learn more about search engine optimization.

 

Famous Google Bombs

You can find a list of Google Bombs past and present at Google Blogoscoped.

Some of the better known bombs include:

  • The first Google bomb was launched as a joke by Adam Mathes. He linked the Web site of his friend Andy Pressman to the phrase "talentless hack."
  • "Weapons of mass destruction" was linked to a joke page claiming "these weapons of mass destruction cannot be displayed"
  • "French military victories" was linked to a similar joke page.
  • "McDonald's" was linked to the film Supersize Me, which was highly critical of the McDonald's restaurant chain.
  • "Jew" was linked to the Wikipedia entry on Judaism. This was done to counter the original search results, which ranked an anti-semitic Web site as the top result. Google also placed a link to a statement at the top of the search results page to explain the results.
  • Comedian Stephen Colbert's Web site, Colbert Nation was Google bombed by fans with the phrases "giant brass balls" and "greatest living American."
  • After angering columnist Dan Savage with his anti-homosexual remarks in 2003, Savage and the fans of his "Savage Love" column created a Google bomb that linked politician Rick Santorum's name to a the definition for a lewd phrase. As of 2011, the Google bomb remains intact and is outranking Rick Santorum's official page. Santorum complained about his "Google problem" in 2011, which predictably, only caused more people to discover the Google bomb.

Many of these Google bombs fade with time, as the original links move off of the first page of the blogs that linked them, or the webmasters that created them get bored with the joke. Some, like Rick Santorums's Google bomb, end up staying around for years.

 

The End of the Google Bomb?

In January of 2007, Google announced that they'd tweaked their search algorithm to remove most Google bombs. Indeed, the day they announced this, the "miserable failure" bomb was no longer working. The top results for that search all pointed to articles about Google bombs. 

Is this the end of Google bombs? Probably not. Although this algorithm tweak eliminated many Google bombs, it did not eliminate all of them, including Rick Santorum's, and it is possible that future pranksters will simply tweak their strategy to counter the algorithm changes.  

 

Miserable Failure Again

In early April of 2007, the "miserable failure" bomb made a brief reappearance, at least for the word "failure." What was the difference? The White House website made the mistake of using the word "failure" within one of the featured articles.

This means that Google's bomb fix most likely looks at whether or not the linked site contains any of the words used to form the link when it determines relevancy.

The Obama administration completely redesigned the White House website and did not redirect links from the old site. This will most likely diffuse the old "miserable failure" Google bomb completely.

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