Will Weblogs ruin Google's search engine?

Inside the Internet.
March 25 2002 2:50 PM

Google Time Bomb

Will Weblogs ruin Google's search engine?

29_020324_bomb

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."

Advertisement

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: <a href="http://a.wholelottanothing.org/archived.blah/2/01/2002/#795">Critical IP</a> 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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

Behold
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.