Google’s (and Inktomi’s) Miserable Failure

By now, many know that a Google search for “miserable failure” brings up the official George W. Bush biography from the U.S. White House Web site. Dismissed by Google as not a problem, the incident points to a case where the real miserable failure is Google itself.

“Google bombing” like this has happened in the past. In general, it’s had little impact on most people. Making a site come up tops for a relatively obscure query such as “miserable failure,” which returns less than 200,000 matches, is very different from exercising some sort of super-control over Google for popular or commonly performed searches.

I’ve written before about other examples of Google bombing and why I think they tend to be overplayed. But in this case, I find myself agreeing with The Register’s Andrew Orlowski, who discussed earlier this year how blogging activity might “googlewash” a term. Googlewashing is when the originating document or original meaning of a term is lost due to new material coming into search results.

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 “no user is hurt” and there’s 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 using the term are involved, but to say this particular campaign is the same as the “opinion on the Web” is absurd. 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 hurt, because there are indeed “legitimate” sites for this query. They get kicked down in the results.

What’s a legitimate site? Seems the Dick Gephardt For President site deserves top ranking. Gephardt appears to have dubbed the Bush administration a “miserable failure” as part of his campaign slogan. In short, Gephardt’s site is an originating source for the term and actually provides much more useful information for those wondering how it relates to Bush than does the biography prank.

Rather than be first in the results, Gephardt’s site is ranked seventh. Only three weeks ago, he was ranked third. At this rate, the game Google is happy for people to play (see new entries for Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Michael Moore) will have pushed Gephardt’s site out of the top results altogether and into oblivion.

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 three weeks ago, the piece was ranked second. Now, gaming has pushed it to sixth.

Terming Google bombing “cybergraffiti,” as the New York Times does, is appropriate. Google did have good listings for the query, for the few who were probably searching the term before the prank emerged. Now, Google appears happy this blogging campaign (and now new ones) spray-paint whatever slogans it wants above more relevant listings.

Again, most of the time this is not a big deal. Debating who should be number one for “talentless hack,” a past Google bomb, is more of an amusement. But “miserable failure” is a campaign slogan in a major U.S. presidential race. What comes up in search results matters significantly more.

By the way, Inktomi also has Bush’s biography coming up for “miserable failure,” underscoring link manipulation isn’t solely a Google problem. It’s a challenge that Google’s most direct crawler-competitor also faces. But Teoma, which uses a unique form of link analysis, has escaped bombing.

There’s some good search result news for Bush, at least. His former campaign-store Web site is no longer number one on Google for what I’ll very euphemistically term a search for “dumb Oedipus,” as was the case back at the beginning of 2001.

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