If you were to search for “miserable failure” on Google in 2004, the first result led you to the biography of President George W. Bush on whitehouse.gov. Searching for “french military victories” using Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky feature returns a mockup of their results page, with Google helpfully suggesting, “Did you mean french military defeats?” Before these, in 2001, a Stanford student and future Google employee jokingly made a friend’s website appear as the first result for the phrase “talentless hack.”
And thus the Google Bomb was born.
Google Bombing is the practice of manipulating links and keywords in order to influence which sites appear highest on search engine results pages (SERPs). Oftentimes the Bombs are meant to get harmless laughs and are nothing more than an unintended consequence of Google’s way of fetching results (like the examples above). The company has changed its algorithm to try to prevent Google Bombing in the last few years. Unfortunately, though, Google and other search engines can still be used by disgruntled employees or unsatisfied clients to damage the online reputations of businesses and individuals.
Libelous material online is still a hazy part of the law for most judges and juries, but untrue and defamatory material published online isn’t any less libelous. There are more and more reports of coordinated online campaigns intended to ruthlessly malign a person’s reputation.
Google Bombing is often used by these attackers to promote their libelous content in order to tarnish the search results of the name of a person or company. The worst of these campaigns can overwhelm victims and leave them feeling helpless. After all, no one wants to Google his or her name to find the results flooded with hurtful and untrue material, and certainly no one wants potential employers or customers to see them, either.
Regrettably, taking the attackers to court is an expensive, tiring process, especially if they remain anonymous and hide their identity. ISPs usually won’t disclose users’ information without their consent or a court-ordered subpoena, both scenarios which are unlikely without first building a strong case. However, there are perfectly legal ways to find this information using publicly available information.
A growing number of online services are now providing “online reputation management.” The goal here is to combat Google Bombing and libelous material by using out-of-court, legal methods to discover the identities of the attackers and pressure search engines and websites to disclose information which could be valuable evidence in court. Many of these firms use techniques designed to reverse and bury Google Bombs, as well, to start to repair clients’ web presence.
So, the next time you Google “miserable failure” and your Facebook page shows up, you might want to give one of these companies a call.