Google Defuses Link Bombs

George Bush is no longer a "miserable failure," judging from Google. How did he become one in the first place, and why isn’t he one any longer? No, this article isn’t about politics; it’s about Google bombs. Read more to learn about their background, and whether they can still be used effectively — perhaps to your own advantage.

"When a handshake passes the elbow, it becomes Judo"

Local Nigerian Proverb

Miserable Failure

"Miserable Failure." If you typed this into Google at the time of the 2004 presidential election, the first thing that came up was George Bush’s White House biography. If you typed "waffles" in during the same time frame, up came John Kerry’s official website. George Bush’s official web site also has the dubious distinction of being first for the terms "miserable" and "failure."

The History

What started all the brouhaha? And what technique did these bloggers use to set up the "Google Bomb?" George Bush’s official website ranks second on both MSN and Yahoo for "miserable failure," so it’s actually a "Link Bomb." It all began when Dick Gephardt claimed during a debate that "This president is a miserable failure on foreign policy … and on the economy. And he’s got to be replaced." 

A month later a Democrat Washington blogger began the linking campaign. In six weeks the White House page on George Bush was at the top of Google SERPs for the key word "miserable failure." At various stages during the changes to Google’s algorithm (and also thanks to some deliberate acts by GOP bloggers), the key word "miserable failure" has also pointed to Hillary Rodham Clinton and former US president Jimmy Carter.

Politics seems to have brought link bombs into the public light, and quite a number of public figures have been victims of deliberate linking campaigns, both in and outside the United States. Even image search can be included, as image searches for "miserable," "failure" or "miserable failure" give George Bush’s much maligned visage.

Lest you think this article is all about Bush Junior, let me explain what I am going to look at. In this article, we have already looked at some of the history behind Link Bombs. We will also look at Google "adjusting" their algorithms in order to remove some of the listings, and the potential effects of this adjustment. Additionally, we will look at how to set up a link bomb, and why you should quickly consider doing it if you are a well known member of a blog community and you have a relevant web site you want to promote. We will touch on Google’s probable reaction to your link bomb and examine some of the ethics of "link bombing."

On January 27, 2007, Google adjusted their algorithms for web search to remove certain listings from their SERPs, especially the famous "miserable failure" top two rankings. This was done after almost three years of ignoring the link bomb, apart from various posts detailing that the SERPs did not reflect their political viewpoint, explaining the mechanism behind Google bombing, and stating their reluctance to change the listings. Currently, however, searches for keywords such as "miserable failure" turn up news articles describing the Google bomb, with the terms "miserable failure" itself getting scant mention.

I heard about the defusing on February 2 on Search Engine Land. Since then analysts have wondered how this tinkering with the algorithms will affect Google’s SERPs and other search engine listings. Google routinely changes their algorithms every six months or so, and the algorithms are definitely not open source (they are released every couple of months though), so not every one is privy to what changes Google made. From the way the SERPs look, the changes did not pull all the Link Bombs on Google’s SERPs.

A post on the Google webmaster blog explained that "When we’re faced with a bad search result or a relevance problem, our first instinct is to look for an automatic way to solve the problem instead of trying to fix a particular search by hand. Algorithms are great because they scale well: computers can process lots of data very fast, and robust algorithms often work well in many different languages. That’s what we did in this case, and the extra effort to find a good algorithm helps detect Google bombs in many different languages." It’s worth noting that not ALL Link Bombs were defused, just the really famous ones (and the image search bomb still works for "miserable failure"). The post continued with "Again, the impact of this new algorithm is very limited in scope…but we hope that the affected queries are more relevant for searchers."

How did they do it? One theory is that Google’s algorithms are now products of on page and off page factors (multiplied together) instead of the sum of on page and off page factors that traditional SEO takes into account. So in this case a pure linking strategy, or a pure content strategy, will no longer work as much as linking combined with content updates.

The problem arises now that if Google has started interfering with its SERPs (apart from just banning sites, which would have been strange in this case because the site in question did not actively participate in the linking strategy) what else will they start doing? Is it possible that they will manipulate their SERPs to delist certain sites, such as Wikipedia, which are so top heavy in the rankings that some people advocate going straight to Wikipedia when searching for information rather than Google or any other search engine? It sounds far fetched, but how far is too far? You can still report any "live" Google bomb to the Google Web Search Help Group (spoilsports).

One or two high profile cases did not push Google to tinker with their algorithm, but by this time "left" leaning bloggers had started linking GOP candidates to negative articles about them — and the bloggers actually called it Search Engine Optimization! It was outright manipulation of SERPs in true SEO style, but obviously Google did not find it funny.

Fifty Republican candidates were targeted in this campaign, set up by Chris Bowers of http://www.mydd.com/. They put the names of their Republican targets as anchor texts to the articles they wanted to link to, and they chose relatively low profile candidates because high profile candidates would have heavyweight sites already listing for them as key words on the SERPs. They even intended to start AdWord campaigns for high profile candidates. This kind of manipulation obviously made the Google software engineering team take a long hard look at their algorithms.

How Does This Affect You

How will this search engine algorithm change affect your honest linking strategy? Probably not much, as far as linking goes, unless Google discovers an obvious fraud such as link farming, or some forms (not all) of spamdexing, they will not take too much out of your Page Rank. Whether your linking is deliberate or not, the bot’s job is to count the links; it will take a human eye to notice whether anything is amiss. However we will look more deeply into this when we see how a Link Bomb is set up.

How to Set Up a Link Bomb for Yourself

Cost = Free (most times)
Category = Link Trading
Difficulty = N/A
Duration = Varies With Blog Network
Pros = If content is relevant, Matt Cutts (top Google spam buster) won’t ban you.
Cons = If no relevant content, you will get banned for link spamming!

It’s like Search Engine Optimization 101. Once your site is set up you start blogging, build up a community and encourage them to add links to your site (discourage "no follow" links). The politicians do it, and it can actually get very technical when you start calculating IP addresses, anchor text and relevant content found on the referring link page. Please note, this is different from just plain "link farming" which will get you banned. 

Now the key factor in setting up your own Google Bomb is the "anchor text." For example, hardware is the anchor text I’m using with this link for findcomputerstuff.com here. The "miserable failure" bomb was not due to the content on the White House biography; it was simply that bloggers used the words "miserable" and "failure" to anchor links to the biography page.

Note that the above is not really a link bomb, it’s more of a "one way link trade." A real Link Bomb is done to boost another site’s ranking for either a negative (mostly) or positive key word. Matt Cutts says about Google Bombs, "A Google bomb is when you’re trying to cause ‘someone else’s’ site to rank for phrases like "враг народа" or "talentless hack" or "mouton insignificant" or whatever."

For a niche or even a popular non-commercial keyword, as little as 32 links using your key word could get you top results for that key word (but that was before the algorithms were changed). Combine these with weekly content updates and you can have your own "Google Bomb" up and running. Try it! What do you have to lose?

Matt_Cutts has this to say about SEO link building using the same techniques: "Graywolf, [santorum] isn’t a Google bomb, it’s straight SEO. Here’s the difference. With a Google bomb, you’re causing someone else’s site to rank. With SEO, you’re promoting your own site. So spreading santorum.com is promoting themselves for [santorum], which is SEO. This change isn’t targeting SEO, so it doesn’t impact people trying to rank their own sites. Another historical example is [French military victories]. That’s not a Google bomb; that’s one person trying to SEO their own page to #1 for a phrase."

Some Ethics of Linking

Purely linking without having key words which match with the anchor text is overlooked by Google, so you could actually score big (before they changed their algorithms) on Google’s SERPs without having a single word which matched the key word you are big on. Note however that the instant serious competition shows up with key word relevant content, your top ranking will go down the drain. So your linking strategy should be combined with some relevant content if you want to stay up in the listings.

The most important thing is to avoid "link farming," which is having links to you blogs made specifically for that purpose (links alone, no content).

At the end of the day, I consider link bombs to be basically pranks. There must be laughter in every profession, and harmless Google bombers are the clowns of SEO. However when they started taking it too seriously, the joke went too far and now the search engines are putting an end to the fun.

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