In August 2006, just a few months in advance of the midterm elections, 26 million citizens were logging on to the Internet to get information about the campaigns, according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. That amounts to 13 percent of all adults in the country using the Internet as a tool to make informed political decisions.
Nobody doubts that the Internet is increasingly invaluable for disseminating political news and information as well as campaign organizing and fundraising. Unfortunately, disinformation and media manipulation are the chocolate and peanut butter of politics. Substantial pitfalls remain for ordinary citizens looking to the Internet for up-to-date and accurate political information. For example, when you search the Internet for information are you seeing an objective listing of what’s notable about that candidate or issue — or are you seeing what someone else wants you to see?
That’s the question raised by “Google bombing” — Internet slang for an attempt to influence the rankings of search-engine results by manipulating the algorithm Google uses to catalogue web pages. Google-bombing techniques can be quite sophisticated, but in a nutshell: If enough blogs and/or web pages link to something using the same “anchor text“ in the link, then that web page will shoot to the top of the Google results for the search phrase. One recent example of Google bombing is how Stephen Colbert shot to the top of the Google results for “greatest living American” by imploring his audience to create links on their blogs and websites that linked the anchor text “greatest living American” to Colbert’s website.
However, many Google bombs are expressly political. The second Google bomb ever created made George W. Bush temporarily the top search result for “dumb mother**ker.” Since then, Google bombs have gradually gone from jokes and base political expression to an organized campaign to affect public opinion in a way that some would say is insidious. In some cases, a relatively small number of blogs have had a huge impact on the rankings — possibly as few as 32 blogs were able to make the White House biography page for George W. Bush the number one search result for “miserable failure” back in 2003.
And notably, since the inception of Google bombing seven years ago, political Google bombs have been predominantly a tactic of the Left. While Google bombing isn’t exclusive to Democratic partisans (in 2004 a Republican blogger instigated a successful Google bomb for John Kerry and “waffles”), the liberal blogosphere is far more actively trying to Google bomb Republican candidates.
“The whole concept is born of the idea that both voters and journalists are going to Google to find information about candidates for office. If the liberal blogs can place links with damaging information about Republicans in front of journalists and voters, then they think they can negatively influence that candidate’s electoral chances,” said William Beutler, Senior Online Analyst at New Media Strategies and originator of the Hotline’s Blogometer column, in addition to being the writer behind BlogPI.net, a blog devoted to tracking developments in the political blogosphere.
Here’s how the liberal blogosphere put Google bombing to work in the 2006 midterm elections. In late October, just a few weeks prior to the midterm election, blogger Chris Bowers* — who’s been the key instigator of Google bombing Republican candidates — crossposted a plan to Google bomb 70 key congressional races on the hugely popular liberal blogs MyDD.com and DailyKos.com:
‐ Step One: With help from readers at Dailykos and MyDD, I will compile a list of seventy articles, one for each targeted race. Every article will focus on a different Republican candidate, and will be written by as generally trusted a news source as possible. It will also present as unflattering a view on the Republican candidate as possible. All of these articles will be placed into a database that I will maintain with the help of willing volunteers.
‐ Step Two: Once the database is complete, BlogPac will purchase Google Adwords that will place each negative article on the most common searches for each Republican candidate. Simultaneously, I will produce an article on MyDD that embeds that negative article into a hyperlink that names the Republican candidate. I will then send a copy of that post out to as many bloggers as possible, who can also place the post on their blogs. One posting of this article will be enough.
‐ Step Three: All further discussion of the Republican candidates in question on all participating blogs should include an embedded hyperlink that will increase the Google search rank of the article on the given candidate.
The result of this should be that the most damning, non-partisan article written on every key Republican candidate for House and Senate will appear both high on every Google search for that candidate, and automatically as an advertisement on every search for that candidate. BlogPac will cover the costs. The netroots will supply the research.
Obviously, the 2006 midterms went very well for Democrats, though there’s no way to quantify the contribution of Google bombing to the Democrats’ electoral success, especially amidst all the G.O.P. scandal and other national developments heading up to that election. But it can’t be discounted either.
A good case study is Kansas Congressman Jim Ryun, who lost a narrow election for his seat in 2006 and was one of the candidates subject to the netroots Google-bombing attack. “When a campaign goes wrong and a five-term incumbent loses, there are a whole lot of things that have gone wrong. So was the Google bombing the sole reason we lost? No. Was it a part of it? Yes, but how big a part I don’t know,” said Drew Ryun, the former congressman’s son and himself a former deputy director in the grassroots division of the Republican National Committee.
Beutler, however, thinks that Google-bombing attacks are often less than effective. “You’re assuming that your link is putting information in front of journalists or voters that they didn’t already have. Unfortunately, the things they are linking to are always things that the [liberal] netroots have calculated will be bad for their candidate,” he said.
The wisdom of crowds doesn’t always apply to the netroots in this respect, notes Beutler, who cites a recent Google-bomb attack on John McCain. “With McCain their Google bomb was something about McCain supporting the Iraq war … I think everybody knows John McCain is a strong supporter of the war in Iraq — that’s never been in doubt. I don’t think they’re fundamentally changing anyone’s perception of him,” he said.
Further, Google is not amused by the continued attempts to interfere with the purity of search results. The first reaction at the Mountain View headquarters was to ignore the manipulation of the search engine. “We don’t condone the practice of Google bombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results, but we’re also reluctant to alter our results by hand in order to prevent such items from showing up,” according to a statement Google released on its website in 2005. But Google bombing has remained a persistent problem, so much so that in January of this year Google announced that it had tweaked its search algorithm to minimize the impact of Google bombing.
Despite this, many Google bombs remain intact. As of now, the story the liberal netroots Google bombed to paint Ryun in a negative light in 2006 — an unsubstantive hit piece from the Topeka paper on whether or not Ryun merely forgot or actively lied about living on the same Capitol Hill street as scandal-beleaguered Congressman Mark Foley — remains the sixth-ranked Google result for Jim Ryun.
Still, few Google bombs make it to the top result where they could have the most impact. “When the average person uses Google they are overwhelmingly likely to click on the very first link or the first couple of links, even by the eighth link on a page at that point very few people are clicking through to it,” Beutler noted, citing studies of how search engines are used. “I’ve seen Bowers announce with enthusiasm that ‘we’ve got this one link up to, like 45.’After the first page it’s almost completely worthless,” he tells National Review Online.
Regardless, the liberal blogosphere, and Bowers in particular (who did not respond to a query for this piece), remain actively engaged in Google bombing and seem to have few if any ethical qualms about the lack of transparency. “If you look at Bowers writings on this, he refers to this as SEO — “Search Engine Optimization“ — but it’s not. They are really trying to game search engines,” Beutler says. “It’s not making the pages better, it’s not doing the organic things that Google is supposed to do.”
But even if Google bombing is ineffective more often than not, the risk and effort are minimal compared to the potential reward. Bowers claims somewhat hyperbolically that Google bombing is a “quick action that can eventually be worth the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in national TV ads.” However, for the time being, it still appears to be paying off. As a result of a Bowers-instigated Google bomb, a story noting that 9/11 hero Rudy Giuliani was the only candidate not invited to speak to a recent Firefighters Union Presidential candidate forum, is currently the #6 Google result, just one link below the Time magazine story pronouncing him 2001’s Man of the Year. And Google bombing is sure to accelerate as the 2008 election progresses.
Meanwhile, this has many concerned about how this is just another example of how Republicans are outmatched when it comes to tapping the resources of the Internet for political gain.
“I think in 2006 the Democrats and their allies became very adept at using the Internet as a very effective political tool in a sense to offset what they felt was the unfair advantage of conservative talk radio,” says Drew Ryun. “I think we saw in 2006, if [the Democrats] didn’t perfect it they came close to it — Jim Ryun wasn’t the only Republican that got dinged. I think the Republicans and the conservatives have one of two options, let them keep winning or figure out a more effective Internet strategy going into 2008. If there is room to improve, the Left is going to find a way.”
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.