You may remember two months ago when I wrote about trying to increase my Google footprint. The goal was to push this blog up a bit higher on the Google hit list, over and above the random scatterings of Amazon and other such sites.
I managed to erase the trace of my commercial practices. But the blog still comes in only at the eighth spot on the list. I'm still being beat out by my Writing Center profile from last year (why is that still online?), a piece of creative writing from my Bakhtin seminar, the Yahoo! Pipes that I built last semester (see this post), and several threads from the SIMILE listserv (where you can see what a realtive n00b I am with writing teh HTMLz). Sure, you eventually get my blog, but it's not quite what I'd hoped for.
And that's what you get with the regular Google button. What happens if you use the we're-oh-so-quirky-and-such-an-Internet-company-that-provides
-stock-options "I'm Feeling Lucky" button? Well, you get the top hit: my Writing Center profile. And this brings us to the process of Google bombing.
Google bombing is where a group of people work together to link particular sites and words to a third site. If enough people do this, then the results of a "I'm Feeling Lucky" search become skewed. A recent and well-known example of Google bombing happened in 2003, when searching on the phrase "miserable failure" took people to the White House's biography of George W. Bush. (In an interesting, somewhat meta-commentary on this process, doing the same "miserable failure" search today points to a BBC article that discusses Google bombing and this particular example.*) There are other popular Google bombing phrases, including "french military victories" and "more evil than Satan himself" which used to take you to Microsoft's home page but now (again with the meta?!*) takes you to a 1999 CNN article that discusses the "anomaly caused by quantum fluctuations in Web space".
Enter 2008 and a fascination with all things Chuck Norris (a favorite Internet meme along with lolcats and ninjas). Try using the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button with the phrase "find chuck norris." Amuse yourselves.
Among many things I find fascinating with this process, one is how it exposes the fiction in which Google acts as an arbitrator of collective intelligence (one topic in the just-released 2008 Horizon Report, more to come soon on this). We generally assume that Google's algorithm produces an unbiased glimpse of what the web has collectively determined is most relevant to a particular search phrase. Google enjoys its current leading position as a search engine precisely because it so consistently returns results that match what you and I are looking for that we tend to naturalize the relationship between algorithm and the masses of people whose work generates it.
The reality is that manipulating the search results doesn't require anything close to a hive mind. The BBC article linked above mentions that it took perhaps as few as 32 web pages to produce the Bush Google bomb. If you know the basics of the algorithm, then, you can produce results that have the patina of collective intelligence, but are really just the work of a few individuals.
This is one of the key issues in digital literacy. How do we teach our students (and ourselves) to recognize the difference between a Google bomb and a larger, collective decision to change the structure and semantics of the web more permanently? It's much harder doing seeing the difference with Google than it is with the Wikipedia, where you can at least see who the people are that edit the articles and know how often the changes have been made. The Google bomb becomes even harder to demystify because every link to it (including this blog) reinforces it.*
This mediascape is our world and the world of our students. We've got to learn to read it properly.
* Incidentally, Google initially had a policy of not halting Google bombs. As of 29 January 2007, however, they began to link the bomb phrases to sites that discussed the phenomenon of Google bombing, such as the BBC site above. For more information, see the Wikipedia. Or maybe type "Google bomb" and hit the button...