Google Moves to Disarm Search 'Bombs'

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By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

For many years, Google said it wouldn't rectify the antics of pranksters who rigged search terms, like having "miserable failure" bring up a White House biography of George W. Bush as a top result on its search engine.

But Google last week reversed its position, changing its algorithms to eliminate so-called "Google bombs" that yield political or humorous results.

On its blog targeted at Web engineers, Google disclosed that it made changes to minimize the impact of the most popular Google bombs. Too many people started to think the results reflected the company's political opinion, it said.

"We've seen a lot of misconceptions. People thought Google was behind these or was endorsing these" Google bombs, said Matt Cutts, the software engineer at Google who posted an explanation of the company's decision on the Google Webmaster blog. "It's not the case. Most of these can be considered pranks, and the direct impact on all search results is minuscule. But it is good to correct our search quality."

Because of the changes Google made to its formula, searching for "miserable failure" on Google now pulls up a news story by the BBC about Google bombing as the first result, followed by a Wikipedia entry on the topic and another article in an industry publication. The White House page no longer appears in the top 100 results.

The search engine uses many factors to determine the ranking of a Web site in the search results. One factor influencing that ranking is how many other Web sites link to the targeted site, so if many sites use the term "miserable failure" and use it as a link to the White House site, the White House site rises in the rankings. The White House Web page does not contain the words "miserable failure," but the obscurity of the phrase made it easier to rise quickly in the rankings.

Other search engines use similar variations on search technology. Google isn't the only one affected. Yahoo's search, for example, still brings up the president's profile as its top result.

George Johnston, a Bellevue, Wash., man who claims to be the architect of the "miserable failure" Google bomb, said he started his campaign in 2003 because it would be "fun" and "easy." He e-mailed a number of popular bloggers and asked them to use the phrase and create a link to the White House Web site. It quickly took off.

"It spawned a whole class of jokes when people understood how easy it was," Johnston said in an e-mail. "Google bombing as a blogger sport hit its peak in 2004," then receded as the novelty wore off, he said.

The White House has never asked Google to remove the "miserable failure" results, according to White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. "If anything, it provided people with an opportunity to learn more about the president's positive agenda," Lawrimore said.

Other popular Google bombs include "French military victories," which brings up a Web site designed to look like an error message that says, "Did you mean: French military defeats." Another term, "waffles," used to pull up a site about former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry. Google bombing happened in other languages, as well.

Despite the growth of fake results, Google was initially reluctant to intervene, claiming that the most relevant results could still be found. More recently, Google tried to highlight pranks by putting a warning at the top of the results page.

Danny Sullivan, a London-based consultant and former editor of Search Engine Watch, said Google should have addressed the issue much earlier. "But it's a difficult decision," he wrote in response to e-mailed questions. "Some people still interpret this as Google trying to repress Web 'opinion' rather than improve search results."

Google said the changes it made last week still can't stop all Google bombs. "People will always find ways to make jokes on the Web," Cutts said. "Because Google takes search quality very seriously, we will continue to refine search quality."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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