Thursday, October 26, 2006

Political Google Bombs

Another campaign season means more another look at how Google bombing is being used as a campaign tactic. This isn't new, as the NYT would have you believe, especially since the NYT reported on the tactic in 2004 (do they even bother to Google their own papers before writing new articles?). It brings to mind a piece on Slate by John Hiler, about blogs ruining Google, that discussed the practice as mostly harmless, given that Google bombs were usually motivated by humor, ego, money, or justice. He worried that the practice could do permanent damage to Google's search results, but Google wasn't too worried back then in 2002:
"We love the Weblog community," said Google's Peter Norvig. "We don't see any problems with Google Bombs yet. You would need a concerted effort to abuse Google. What we're seeing now is independent nodes acting alone."
And, though the tone is changed, it's still on message now:
“We don’t condone the practice of Google bombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results,” said Ricardo Reyes, a Google spokesman. “A site’s ranking in Google’s search results is automatically determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query.”
Google's hands-off approach seems fair here. Since a Google bomb is created through linking, remedying one would have to depress a page's ranking somehow. And since there's nothing "wrong" with linking to other pages on the Internet, it doesn't seem that its Google's job to make sure that people are linking in good faith. In fact, what people say and what they link to is precisely what makes Google work in the first place.

BUT, the potential here for a defamation claim against someone seems too obvious. For instance, a Google search for Santorum, as in Sen. Rick Santorum R-PA, returns as the top result a curious linguistic reference created by Dan Savage in response to anti-homosexual remarks by Santorum. That example hews the line of political speech a little too closely and isn't a great example for defamation, but you can see what can be done to someone. It would make sense to pursue such a claim against the originator of the bomb, but that's not necessarily an easy thing to find out. And given that people like to sue Google, it may only be a matter of time before someone comes to Google decrying their search results, demanding that something be done to clear their good name. I can also think of trademark claims against the tactic (dilution anyone?). If Google bombing becomes more widespread, it will no doubt cause numerous headaches for Google, both technically and legally.

Now if only I could manipulate PageRank so that this site comes up on top when you search for Google copyright.
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