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Google's fatal flaw?

I love Google. What a wonderful search engine and more ... a pop-up blocker, an incredibly useful calculator that does conversions on the fly, an address finder ... and I'm just scratching the surface. The fact that search sites like Google have become so widely used means that search engine optimization has never been more important. A low ranking on Google can hurt your company!

Google's search engine algorithms are proprietary. Google's super-accurate search technology is what allowed them to soar past Yahoo as the dominant search engine on the Web. Google's ability to quickly give you the results you need can be attributed to software called PageRank, which was developed by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University.

According to Google, PageRank interprets links from one site to another as a vote and these votes count more if they come from relevant pages. Google's site tells you that their algorithm makes human tampering with their results extremely difficult.

But is this true? A concept known as Google Bombing is becoming recognized as a way to change the manner in which Google ranks sites. The New York Times refers to this activity as a form of cyber-graffiti, an apt term for this sort of nuisance. You can see for yourself great example of a Google Bomb. Type the words "miserable failure" into this most famous of search engines. The first result (at the time of this writing) is the biography of President George W. Bush followed by the biography of Jimmy Carter. As amazing as this sounds, groups of bloggers, both Democrat and Republican, have been working together to bomb Google in order to sway its results.

The term Google Bombing seems to have been coined by blogger Adam Mathes when he realized that Google searches brought up sites that were devoid of the search terms. He learned that Google takes into account the text that is linked to a site. If many Web sites started to link "Big Blue" to, eventually Google would weigh IBM's site higher when you search on the term "Big Blue." As a prank, Mathes discovered, with the help of fellow bloggers, that he could alter Google's search results in such a way that "talentless hack" would yield results pointing to his friend's blog. While this was successful, it is painfully obvious that this same technique that allows a person to sway Google's search engine as a prank can be used to make fortunes and/or destroy the fortunes of others. Google is a very powerful site. The word google has even become a verb. It is now possible to tamper with Google in ways the creators of the "secret algorithm" never intended. Heaven help us.

So you may be asking, what will Google do about this? While we are on the topic, what will Yahoo, Hotbot and Alta Vista do about it? You see, even though the term Google Bomb is used as the prevalent description for the practice, other engines too are having trouble screening out the bombs. Perhaps "search engine bomb" is a more generically suitable term.

Companies are focusing on search engine optimization more than ever, so the question must be asked, how does search engine bombing factor into our need to increase search engine rank? Are there ethical issues worth considering? Many people will tell you that consciously changing search engine results by loading a Web site with keywords that shouldn't logically be there is tantamount to reverse spamming. Another definition of this practice is the deceiving of a search engine relevancy rank. One would imagine that Google, the company, would frown upon search engine bombing. Surprisingly, this doesn't seem to be the case. At least according to an article in the December 9, 2003 edition of The New York Times by Saul Hansell. According to this story, Google's director of technology, Craig Silverstein, said the company (Google) 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 variety of opinions expressed online. "We just reflect the opinion on the Web," he said, "for better or worse."

Is this true, I wondered? If it is, I was curious to see what the Web thinks of, for instance, the French? To find out, I typed "French military victories" into Google and was brought to where I was asked, "Did you mean, 'French military defeats?'" Clicking on this link brought up a page of unflattering yet humorous (if you aren't French) military history. You'll find similarly humorous results when you search for "weapons of mass destruction."

I wanted more elaboration on this issue, so I contacted Google via e-mail and asked a spokesperson questions about this and many other issues related to bombing and search engine spamming. I wanted to find out if Google has any policies about spamming which the public should know about. This is the sole response I received after repeated queries for more information:

"Google's search results are objectively generated by machine algorithms. This is not a political statement from Google but rather a reflection of a recent Web phenomenon. In this case, a select group of Webmasters used the words [miserable failure] to describe and link to George Bush's Web site. From time-to-time, we discover focused campaigns that attempt to use links to influence Google search results. Ultimately, these efforts do not affect the overall quality of the more than 200 million search queries we serve every day."

This response seems very accurate in describing the current state of Web searching, but isn't the genie out of the bottle? Isn't the cat out of the bag? Isn't this just the beginning of legions of bloggers and corporations doing everything in their power to warp the results of Google and other search engine? Worse, it doesn't seem to be possible to defuse these search engine bombs because there is no way to distinguish them from the rest of the Web. According to published reports, just over a dozen links and a few weeks may be all that is required to effectively plant a Google bomb, pushing a site to the top of PageRank order. I have heard of instances in which bloggers are selling links on their blogs vie eBay, though after a search on eBay, I couldn't find any such listing.

Since Google bombing has now been exposed to the business community, will there be a mad rush to bomb slogans like there was to acquire domain names? Will Rolaids want to capture "How do you spell relief?" Will BMW want to capture "The ultimate driving machine?" The latter search term currently brings up as its first result Did this site get to be number one on Google due to a bomb? Is BMW able to sue others for having bombed Google using their registered slogan? What, for example, if Mercedes came up as the first search term for the "ultimate driving machine"? Far be it from me to suggest that your company engage in bombing, but it will likely be deemed more and more important in an ever-growing quest for search engine prominence to bomb away, and if you aren't watching your slogans and catchphrases, you may find others dominating searches that should rightfully (at least in your opinion) list you first.
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Title Annotation:High Priority!
Publication:Customer Interaction Solutions
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Previous Article:How to win friendly agents and influence customers.
Next Article:Executive Spotlight.

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