Google has finally defused the “Google Bomb” that has returned US President George W. Bush at the top of its results in a search on miserable failure. The move wasn’t a post-State Of The Union Address gift for Bush. Instead, it’s part of an overall algorithm change designed to stop such mass link pranks from working.
A search today now shows the US White House page carrying Bush’s name is no longer top listed. Also gone are pages about Michael Moore and former US president Jimmy Carter that were on the first page of results due to Google bombing actions.
What’s not missing are articles about the Google bombing incident itself, including my own article I wrote back in January 2004 from when I worked at Search Engine Watch. The algorithm change hasn’t impacted these.
This is because the change is designed to stop the pranks from happening rather than legitimate commentary about such activities. Google isn’t saying exactly how this is being done. But Google says it’s done automatically, without any human intervention.
“It’s completely algorithmic,” said Google spam fighting czar Matt Cutts, adding “we’re not going to claim it’s 100 percent perfect.”
Why the change? Too many people are misunderstanding that Google itself is not somehow endorsing the particular views of these bombs. From Google’s statement on the Google Webmaster Central blog about today’s change:
People have asked about how we feel about Googlebombs, and we have talked about them in the past. Because these pranks are normally for phrases that are well off the beaten path, they haven’t been a very high priority for us. But over time, we’ve seen more people assume that they are Google’s opinion, or that Google has hand-coded the results for these Googlebombed queries. That’s not true, and it seemed like it was worth trying to correct that misperception. So a few of us who work here got together and came up with an algorithm that minimizes the impact of many Googlebombs.
There have been a variety of Google bombs over the years (such as on this list), but the Bush bomb is most famous. It came to light in December 2003, after a grassroots campaign started two months earlier by George Johnston of the Old Fashion Patriot blog began to work. From Johnston’s instructions:
Let’s get everyone to link to http://www.whitehouse.gov/president/gwbbio.html with the words “Miserable Failure” Our goal is to make Shrubya the top google pick.
It’s fun, it’s easy just <a href=”http://www.whitehouse.gov/president/gwbbio.html” >Miserable Failure</a> in your favorite web page will look like Miserable Failure
When the campaign succeeded, Google came under fire but argued no one was “hurt” by the activity. From a New York Time article in December 2003:
Craig Silverstein, Google’s director for technology, says the company sees nothing wrong with the public using its search engine this way. No user is hurt, he said, because there is no clearly legitimate site for “miserable failure” being pushed aside.
Moreover, he said, Google’s results were taking stock of the range of opinions that are expressed online. “We just reflect the opinion on the Web,” he said, “for better or worse.”
I took some issue with that statement:
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.
After the initial fallout, Google went through the bomb having another round of publicity when it was noticed in September 2005 to be working for just the word failure. The renewed attention caused Google to create a special ad explaining that the listing was not the result of some type of Google bias against Bush. The ad linked to a statement on the official Google Blog:
If you do a Google search on the word [failure] or the phrase [miserable failure], the top result is currently the White House’s 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.
What in 2003 was deemed the web’s opinion now was viewed as a prank. I didn’t disagree with that view. Such bombings have been prank-like. But if so, it was odd that Google was tolerating them, as I wrote after the statement went up:
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.
As it turned out, plenty of people were not only seeing the bio ranking tops for failure but actually visiting the White House via that link. In November 2005, a glitch with a new Google service made it possible for me to discover that “failure” was the most popular term sending traffic to the White House web site. As I wrote:
Not only is the White House ranking well for that word, but it’s also the biggest driver of traffic to the web site. Lots of people are clicking after searching on the term.
Specifically, here are the “Top Search Query Clicks” for the site, as reported by the Google sitemaps system:
These show the five most popular queries that are sending the site traffic. In other words, of all the ways the White House web site might be searched for and rank well on Google, these are the terms sending the most visitors “downstream” to the White House.
Nope, I have no idea why failure appears twice. But it might be related to something that can at least sooth President Bush’s feelings a bit. In the past, a search for [miserable failure] would bring up Bush’s bio first, then bring up President Jimmy Carter’s bio second. So some of this traffic might be related to Carter clicks.
The Bush Administration almost certainly tried to alter Google results itself through a change it made to the White House web site in September 2006. It redirected the Bush bio page to a general page about all US presidents. As I wrote, that move would likely have condemned future US presidents to also be ranked for the term:
Why the change? My money is on the Bush Administration finally getting someone smart about search engines in to “solve” the miserable failure problem. The new page is a common page that potentially may be used by all US Presidents, rather than one specifically about George W. Bush. All those links making the old page come up will now make the overall page for ALL US Presidents rank well for that term.
Interestingly, this “overall” page seems to have existed nearly as long as the dedicated page to Bush, according to the Internet Archive. In January 2001, it hosted his bio. By September 13, 2001, it became an overview page, with his bio moved to that dedicated URL above.
Eventually, Bush will leave office, and so a dedicated page to him will return. This will likely be something like this:
That follows the naming convention of pages for other US Presidents, as you’ll find here. It also begs the question of why it wasn’t created, if the Bush Administration suddenly felt the White House pages about US presidents needed a shake up.
Interestingly again, if you visit that page, you’ll see that Bush still has a dedicated page listed here:
Since that’s actually his bio, the old bio more appropriately should point to that location.
Political games aside, Bush should have a unique page dedicated to himself, rather than making use of a generic page any US President might later encounter. The reason is simple. There are actually plenty of educators and other with no political gripe against Bush that might need to link to his bio or already have done so. This change fails to defuse the link bomb but certainly messes up many pages pointing at his bio with good intentions in the years to come.
Fortunately, Google has now solved the problem both for Bush and his eventual successors. Overall, I’m happy with the change. Though Google bombs worked for a small number of terms, it just didn’t feel right that Google effectively allowed “cyber-graffiti” of this nature, as the New York Times called it, to happen.
Of course, I’ve long preferred the term “link bomb” because as I’ve written, these bombs go off at more than Google itself. Indeed, while Bush may be off the top spot at Google, he remains top ranked for both miserable failure at Yahoo and Microsoft Live.com and in second place at Ask.
For the record, here’s Google from last September:
And here it is today:
Cutts said that the new analysis technique works for bombs in other languages (jämmerlicher waschlappen is apparently one non-English bomb that’s been defused). It is also designed only to stop bombs where the “victim” themselves isn’t trying to rank for a term. For example, french military victories still brings up this parody page which wants to rank for that term.
As I said, Google’s not explaining how the new system is working. Looking at the words people use when they link to a web site is a key component on how Google determines relevancy. For example, thousands of quality links to Amazon using the word books within the link text itself helps that site come up in the top results for the word books in a search.
To defuse Googlebombs, Google can’t simple disregard link text overall. Otherwise, the entire ranking system might suffer. Nor can it try to discount sites that don’t use the terms contained in the links (IE, not rank the Bush page because the page didn’t say the words “miserable failure” on it). This is because many times, pages fail to use the terms they are relevant for. Link text can help save them from being overlooked, in these situations.
Google can track when links first appear pointing to particular sites. It may be that the new system looks to see if there’s a sudden spike of links all using the same words, which might indicate a Google bomb going off. This would be especially so in cases where it also determines are no “authority” sites really ranking well for those words.
That’s some speculation, and there’s going to be plenty more. Feel free to leave your own thoughts on what’s happening. Cutts also has mentioned the Google change briefly on his personal blog. You can expect plenty of speculation to be showing up in the comments associated with his post, as well.
Postscript: Since I originally posted, there’s lots of commentary and analysis of the change. Techmeme’s the easiest place to point you for a consolidation of these. Check out blog posts on the topic consolidated by Techmeme here and here. Also, Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable points to forum discussions here.
I pointed at Philipp Lenssen’s list of Google bombs earlier in the story. He’s now updated that list from Google Blogoscoped here, showing bombs that have been defused.
Postscript (Jan. 23, 2008): See Obama Is “Failure” At Google, “Miserable Failure” At Yahoo for the latest update to this story.