Google bombed by missing WMDs

Reg reader scores hit with UN team

A Register reader's web page that satirizes the USA's inability to find a casus belli for the invasion of Iraq has tickled the UN's weapons inspection team.

Type "Weapons of Mass Destruction" into Google's main search and hit the I'm Feeling Lucky button. The page, created as a prank by a Birmingham pharmacologist to amuse his friends, returns a detourned version of the Internet Explorer browser's 404 error message:

The weapons you are looking for are currently unavailable. The country might be experiencing technical difficulties, or you may need to adjust your weapons inspectors mandate.

The page was created on February 12 - before the invasion and subsequent occupation - and clocked-up a million and half page impressions that month. Prankster Anthony Cox told us that he'd even received a message from the UN inspection team in New York, telling him it had cheered up the office.

"But the ironic thing," says Anthony, "is it wasn't supposed to be anti-war. It was mean to make six people laugh. I'm not pro-war but I think it was justified."

"It's just easier to take a potshot at George W Bush than anyone else."

Register fan Anthony says that this was no Googlebomb.

But the most notorious Googlebomb of recent vintage has also been Iraq-related... and was helped the top by the assidious manipulation of one of Google's own employees, one Jason Shellen. Type "French Military Victories" into Google and hit I'm Feeling Lucky and you're told that no web pages match the search string. Not by Google, of course, but by another prank page, this one.

There's an interesting analysis of how Shellen helped this to the top of Google's page results by Namebase founder Daniel Brandt, here. Brandt asserts that Shellen used "cloaking" techniques to achieve this result. Cloaking is the term for feeding Google's website crawlers specially modified pages. Shellen loaded 33 of his archive pages with links to the prank page, links which are not present on the regular pages. So the bot saw them, while we can't. Naturally, Google frowns on such practices and in its FAQ for webmasters warns that "Google may permanently ban from our index any sites or site authors that engage in cloaking to distort their search rankings."

In an official response, Google said that Shellen had not used cloaking but declined to say if any disciplinary action had been taken against him.

Shellen has recently spoken out to assure a panicking tech-blog circuit - a giddy social whirl of conferences and and other airmile aggregation opportunities - that Google has no plans to remove weblogs from the main index. However the problem of downgrading the unwelcome results of blog noise - what one reader called "the lint of the Internet", referring to the low quality of information represented by empty trackback pages and mindless links - is a problem that continues to tax Google's celebrated phalanx of PhDs.

By contrast, Cox's prank has a much simpler genesis. He posted to the Usenet group uk.humour and word spread from there.

"I even heard from a marketing company. But I couldn't see how they could use it," he mused to us.

Congratulations to Anthony, for inadvertently finding a Googlebomb of mass hilarity. ®

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