I know a little something about search engine optimization and its history. Back in 1998 two college students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wrote a paper in which they proposed adapting the now-discredited Citation Statistics methodology to evaluating Web sites.
Page and Brin believed that links acted like “votes” between Web sites (which was never the case — back in 1997-1999, before Google became big, people were linking to each other mostly for social purposes not to recommend specific content). Thus was born PageRank (named for Larry Page), an algorithm that computes a probability distribution based on linking relationships between documents.
What most people did not realize, however, was that Page and Brin were also proposing a radical marriage between link anchor text and documents. They wrongly believed that links described the contents of the pages they were pointing to. Sometimes this was the case, most times not. Based on their ignorance, they designed one of the most easily spammed search engines in history: Google.
Google gradually became popular with searchers because of its simple interface (it was a refreshing break from the search portal home pages that were so cluttered). Search engine optimizers almost immediately began taking advantage of Google’s inherent design flaws, but in 2003 a blogger noticed how links from other blogs could help move a new post to the top of the search results quickly.
Thus was born Googlebombing (technically, it should be called “Link Bombing” because it works with other search engines that have followed Google’s lead into Stupid Search Ranking Tricks). Most people in the SEO community by now use links to adjust the search results for their sites (or their client sites). It has been a long time since Google showed the most relevant or useful Web sites in many highly commercialized queries.
About 6 years ago, when President George Bush started losing his popularity, Democratic opponents began using their blogs and Web sites to link to the White House biography of the President with the words “miserable failure”. Because of the way Google handles link anchor text, these keywords affected other queries.
Soon, President Bush was ranked first for “miserable failure”, “failure”, “failure in the white house”, and “white house failure”. Republican supporters couldn’t let that trick go unchallenged so they starting linking to Web pages for Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and other equally well-known Democratic leaders with the words “miserable failure”. The Democrats stayed focus on Bush but the Republicans won the link bomb war by filling the first page of search results with Democrats (except for the top 1-2 positions that were reserved for President Bush).
This situation proved to be embarrassing to the search engine optimization industry. It made us look like a bunch of goons who had nothing better to with our time but blackmark people in the search results. People in the SEO community changed their attitudes from light amusement to frustrated disbelief and disgust with Google for not fixing a big PR problem (remember, it wasn’t the SEOs who did this — it was just regular democratic and republican bloggers).
The news media caught on to the controversy and focused everyone’s attention on “miserable failure”. Finally, a couple of years ago, Google implemented what we in the SEO industry call a “hand job”: they set up a table listing many link bomb queries (about 100 of them) and blocked listings for Web sites that had been victimized by those queries. But they overlooked two queries in the Presidential Failure link bomb: “failure in the white house” and “white house failure”.
So President Bush continued to rank for “failure in the white house” and “white house failure” right up until the week when Barack Obama took office.
On January 20 the new President was sworn in and his Web team took down the old Bush-White House Web site and put up the new Obama-White House site. In doing so, they redirected all the old URLs to new URLs — thus “breaking” Google’s fix for the “miserable failure” and “failure” link bombs.
The redirection was immediately noticed in the SEO community and Danny Sullivan, founder and lead editor for Search Engine Land intervened, asking Google to reimplement the hand job. Google complied (they are, after all, Obama supporters) almost immediately.
Except, once again, Google bungled the job. Now President Obama ranks first for “white house failure” and “failure in the white house”.
Now, I was not a big fan of President Bush but I did point out the first time around that those queries should have been fixed. No one listened (and, believe me, I’ve been able to influence Google on more than one occasion). I dropped a comment on Googler Matt Cutts’ blog post about the link bomb, pointing out that Google had still missed two of the queries.
The silence has been deafening.
And the queries still show that President Obama is a “failure in the white house” and a “white house failure”.
Now, maybe if we raise a ruckus together Google will listen and expand the listings in their link bomb table to clean up those two queries. If not, you’d better believe that Obama’s political opponents will capitalize on these queries and use them to embarrass him.
And in the process they’ll also embarrass people like me (SEOs) and Google (who, arguably, deserve to be embarrassed because they have now flubbed two opportunities to fix this mess).
As an alternative, you could get your friends to link to this post with the keywords “failure in the white house” or “white house failure” in the hope it will be promoted above the White House Web site for those queries.
Of course, none of you owe me any favors, and you need to understand that as a practicing SEO theorist I fully appreciate what that many links would do for this blog. It’s just a thought.
My preference would be that Google fix the “failure in the white house” and “white house failure” queries so that we can all put the embarrassment behind us.
And to you Democrats who thought you had the last word on President Bush I say: you not only got what you deserved with this bit of sick poetic justice, now the Republicans are empowered to use this dirty trick over and over again against every Democratic leader.
Try putting THAT genie back into its bottle.
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