Monday, November 6, 2006

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Does Google-bombing matter for elections?

Tom Zeller's column in the New York Times today focuses on liberal efforts to Google-bomb vulnerable Republican candidates. Zeller reports that the effort has been successful:

A GOOGLE bomb — which some Web gurus have suggested is perhaps better called a link bomb, in that it affects most search engines — has typically been thought of as something between a prank and a form of protest. The idea is to select a certain search term or phrase (“borrowed time,” for example), and then try to force a certain Web site (say, the Pentagon’s official Donald H. Rumsfeld profile) to appear at or near the top of a search engine’s results whenever that term is queried....

To the extent that the public consciousness is now just as likely to be reached through a computer screen as a television, the idea that passionate sorts would engage in computer-ready actions should come as no surprise.

And yet many people were shocked by the revelation two weeks ago that left-leaning bloggers were trying to drop a Google bomb on the campaigns of dozens of Republican candidates — not least because its bellicose promise seemed to throw into question the very integrity of search engine results.

This took link bombing to a new level. The key phrases targeted were the names of the Republican candidates themselves. The goal was to tweak things so that searching for “Clay Shaw,” the Republican representative from Florida, for example, would return — high in the results — a news article, preselected from a relatively mainstream publication, detailing some negative aspect of the candidate’s record. This was repeated for 50 or so candidates.

Did it work? The short answer is yes — somewhat. The folks at, where it all began, have been tracking the progress quite out in the open at It’s worth a visit for people of all political persuasions, if only to catch a glimpse of the future of political strategizing.

The latest MyDD update suggests that the netroots have managed to push their preferred link (an unfavorable news story about the candidate in question) into the top 10 links for more than 50 candidates.

So, clearly, political Google-bombing has achieved its short-term goal of pushing particular stories into prominence.

That said, the Luddite in me remains convinced that this will actually have absolutely zero effect on the election. For this to work, you need to believe that undecideds are going to actively search for candidates on the web before making their vote, and in the process stumble across the unflattering story. This is possible in theory, but in practice my hunch is that the people more likely to use the Internet to acquire information on political candidates are more likely to have made their voting decisions already -- and hence the Google-bombing effect would be too late.

Or, to be more flip about it, James Joyner characterizes how these kinds of plans usually end:

Step Four: Sharks with lay-zers on their foreheads.

Step Five: Take over world.

Caveat: my analysis is predicated on an assumption that voters who use the Internet to access political information are more eager for that info, more politically committed, and therefore more likely to commit to a position earlier. I'll grant that there miight be eaknesses in this causal chain.

And, to be fair, a less stringent version of the Google-bomb hypothesis is that a few undecideds stumble across the Google-bombed story, and then e-mail it to everyone they know, creating a viral effect. This is the topic du jour in David Carr's NYT column:

Ken Avidor would not seem to constitute much of a threat to the Republican Party. A Minnesota graphic artist with no official political role, he is a self-described Luddite and a bit of a wonk with an interest in arcane transportation issues.

But last month, Mr. Avidor, a Democrat, managed to capture some video in which Michele Bachmann, a Republican candidate running for election to the United States House of Representatives from Minnesota’s Sixth District, suggested that, after some fasting and praying, not only had God told her to become a tax attorney, he had called her to run for Congress. And now that the election was near, God was “focused like a laser beam, in his reasoning, on this race.”

In the parlance of politics, Ms. Bachmann was “speaking to the room,” in this case, a group at the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Center, Minn. The speech was Webcast live by the church group, allowing Mr. Avidor to use a video camera he borrowed from his 17-year-old daughter to capture the shaky but discernible video off his computer monitor. He then used a three-year-old Mac to edit the piece and then forward it to, well, the world at large.

The video on YouTube and Mr. Avidor’s video blog (, was picked up by other bloggers and eventually, The Star Tribune, the daily newspaper in Minneapolis. Ms. Bachmann’s opponents did everything they could to circulate the video and put her in a position of explaining God’s unpaid consulting role in her campaign.

People in the elections business often say that the most powerful form of endorsement, next to meeting and being actually impressed by a candidate, is the recommendation of a trusted friend.

In this election, YouTube, with its extant social networks and the ability to forward a video clip and a comment with a flick of the mouse, has become a source of viral work-of-mouth. As a result, a disruptive technology that was supposed to upend a half-century-old distribution model of television is having a fairly disruptive effect on politics as well.

posted by Dan on 11.06.06 at 09:08 AM


A timely public service notice.


posted by: Michael on 11.06.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

I've googled politicians this last week to help me decide how to vote. These politicians were "down ballot" and I had not heard much. I imagine most people resort to voting the party when they get to a part of the ballot where the names are not familiar.

Unfortunately, I didn't find much "down ballot" except platitudes and poorly designed web pages. I'll be resorting to my party, the anti-incumbency party.

posted by: PD Shaw on 11.06.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

Well, there is one case where this strategy has really worked, as much of an online movement as just a googlebomb:

Rick "Frothy Mix" Santorum.

The senator from Pennsylvania is now inextricably linked with "The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."

And "Santorum" #1 hit in google is STILL Dan Savage's "spreadingsantorum" website.

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 11.06.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

Bloggers are effective in three ways: the spreading of stories like the "Macaca episode" until the mainstream media starts to cover it, raising money, and generating excitement that increases voter turnout. That said, few people if anyone votes based on googling a candidate. Most people (currently and this may change) vote based on party affiliation, press coverage through newspapers and television, and what their peers think. I therefore don't think google bombing works.

That said, in just a bit of rant, I believe that some of these bloggers have taken things too far when you have bloggers asking candidates, "whether they spit on their first wife" as happened in VA with Mike Stark or posting a facebook picture of a candidate's daughter pecking another girl (while it appears they were drunk). This is mean and nasty and without some kind of rejection of this, will lead to less candidate's wanting to run for office.

On a side note, I appear to already be the victim of some kind of google bomb. When I previously typed in "keeping the majority" in google my blog link previously appeared and somehow it now doesn't show up even when I go to page 2. Not a big deal but kind of childish behavior on the part of liberal bloggers.

posted by: Ian on 11.06.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

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