Googlebombing began as a digital in-joke, but it has already become performance art. Brooklyn-based artist and comic Ze Frank has integrated Googlebombing into his live performances. “I’d been thinking about how a magic trick might work online, and I decided to see if I could Googlebomb the phrase ‘what was I going to say next,’ ” he says. Frank spent weeks encouraging visitors to his Web site to link to a special page he’d created with that unusual phrase. Then, during a performance at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference in Monterey, California, earlier this year, he interrupted his presentation to call up a live Web connection to Google on a giant screen visible to the entire crowd. Feigning uncertainty about where his talk was headed, Frank announced that he would ask Google what he should say next. He typed in the query “what was I going to say next,” and like a ventriloquist’s dummy, Google delivered up as its top result the first sentence of Frank’s next presentation slide.
Staging artificial results in the Google index is something like launching an experimental theater project in a city square: In the midst of all this real life and real information, something staged and artificial appears. But as the history of graffiti art has shown, there’s a fine line between sophisticated public art and irritating public nuisance. That’s one of the concerns expressed by Rael Dornfest, coauthor of the book Google Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools. Dornfest and his colleagues deliberately left Googlebombing out of their book. “In public space, there are social norms; so should there be around Google,” he says. “While, yes, they’re ‘just a company,’ they’re also a commons of sorts to be tended by the Web as a community. Manipulations of its index only serve to confabulate results for everyone else. I say all that knowing full well that much of this is all in the spirit of fun. If I search for ‘talentless hack,’ chances are I am not conducting a search with the hope of real results. But this could just as easily be turned into something more real. Think about linking the phrase ‘Red Cross hunger relief fund’ to an interloper with a PayPal button linked to his private bank account.”
Google’s director of search quality, Peter Norvig, says that traditional Googlebombs aren’t a major concern: “The point of Googlebombs, in a way, is that they don’t really matter—with ‘miserable failure,’ it worked because there was nobody on the Web advertising themselves as a miserable failure, and in our query stream, nobody was asking for ‘miserable failure’ either. The only reason they ask for it now is because they got an e-mail saying, ‘Look at this.’ It was a kind of ecological niche that no one wanted to occupy, and so it’s easy for anything to crawl in there.”
Norvig and his team are more concerned about attempts to manipulate Google’s results for profit: “That’s a more serious matter. There are hotly competed queries—say ‘digital cameras’—where we want to bring people to authoritative sites. So there we have to check because people do things like register a hundred different sites and have them all link to each other. If you’re charitable, you call it ‘search engine optimization’; if you’re less charitable, you call it ‘search engine spam.’ We try to recognize when that happens. What we’ll do is say, ‘Ah, here are a bunch of sites that are all interconnected,’ and we’ll count that as one link, not a hundred.”
In the end, what the people who run Google hope to protect is the confidence among its users: When you get an unusual result, they don’t want you wondering to yourself, “Is this just another Googlebomb?” Consider the top result that Google delivered a few weeks ago for the word Jew: a hateful anti-Semitic site called Jewwatch.com. Is this an accurate reflection of the general pattern of links across the Web, or is the prominence of Jewwatch.com the result of a targeted Googlebomb by a small number of linkers?
To many people, the Googlebomb “miserable failure” will be offensive. But is it different from real-world attempts to manipulate the public’s political views? You can stand in the town square with a sign calling the president a miserable failure, or you can create a network of links to do the same thing online. If TV stations accept advertising approved by George W. Bush that suggests something as absurd as John Kerry not caring about the lives of soldiers in Iraq, why shouldn’t we tolerate public-opinion linking? After all, if you don’t like the results for “miserable failure,” you can always create a new set of links and try to overthrow the top result.
|Google provides nearly instantaneous answers to more than 200 million search queries on an average day. During peak hours, the service responds to roughly 2,000 queries a second, relying on a network of more than 10,000 computers running the open-source Linux operating system.|
Of course, that battle has already begun. At press time, the second and third top Google search results for “miserable failure” linked to biography pages for Jimmy Carter and Michael Moore.
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