If students in your district try an online search for the phrase "miserable failure," which early presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt used as a campaign slogan to apply to the incumbent Republican administration, they may be in for a surprise. Though the phrase appears nowhere on its pages, one of the top-ranked results reported by search engines--including Google and Yahoo--is the official White House biography of President George W. Bush.
Furthermore, the apparently bipartisan results list others who supposedly fulfill the miserable failure criterion, including Jimmy Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Howard Dean. Regardless of your political position, it is clear that outcomes have been compromised.
These strange events are the result of new Internet pranks called Googlebombs, coined by Stanford University student Adam Mathes, since they were first directed toward the Google search engine. The growing online sport exploits the fact that some search engines use more than Web page contents to determine site rankings, and also count how often certain phrases on Web pages link to the same target site. Mathes enlisted others to link the words "talentless hack" to a friend's site, which carried it to the top of searches for that phrase in a matter of weeks.
Although site owners often use techniques to help sites rank higher in searches for specific topics--including inserting hidden words "read" by robot and spider programs that index the Web, positioning keywords in page titles, and increasing the number of times the words appear in the text--Mathes discovered users can conspire to manipulate rankings.
Relatively few accomplices are needed to skew search results for unique phrases, and successful Googlebombs have been detonated with only 20 or 30 links. Examples include "more evil than Satan himself" tied to a major software company site, "weapons of mass destruction" linked to a satirical site with the message "These weapons of mass destruction cannot be displayed" and "French military victories" which called up a spoof page that asked, "Did you mean French military defeats?"
Googlebombs open the gates to online pranks and political statements by college students, and are spreading to school districts. They are also evolving for different types of applications, including the following:
Humor/Satire Bombs. Humor bombs typically use search words that don't get much traffic, such as "talentless hack," and remain as inside jokes among friends. However, phrases used in searches, such as miserable failure, have greater consequences.
Ego Bombs. Some individuals hope to make their names or personal causes famous, such as users named Jason and Kofi who campaigned to raise their site ranks significantly. These sites might now pop up in school searches for Jason in Greek mythology or the UN's Kofi Annan.
Organization Bombs. A real estate company and a religious group recently used Googlebombs to boost their sites. While there are no known cases of people paid to set Googlebombs for commercial purposes, the time may come.
Justice Bombs. Angry online users may use Googlebombs to mete out vigilante justice for real or imagined offenses. An online community recently lobbed bombs at a corporation accused of stealing phone numbers from its database for telemarketing.
Googlebombs are here to stay, and will affect every school district directly or indirectly. While group pranks may be targeted to school, teacher and student Web sites, compromised searches are of major concern. Users should therefore use multiple search tools and search engines such as Teoma that escape bombing by relying on different forms of link analysis. Use the resources below to keep your staff up-to-date and check the links to your Web pages.
comScore Media Metrix www.comscore.com
Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.