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Googlebombs, or Googlebuys?

Jon Garfunkel takes a close look at recent efforts by friends of detained Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fateh – including by Global Voices editors – to call attention to Alaa’s situation through use of a “googlebomb”. Jon is – justifiably – skeptical about the viability of the technique and investigates an alternative – paying for keyword ads of Google for activist purposes.

Because Jon is at least as prolix as I am, let me offer a quick summary of the first four parts of his six part article:

Alaa Abd El Fateh, Egyptian blogger and activist, was arrested for participating in a public protest in Cairo on May 7th. Bloggers around the world reacted to his arrest with posts, badges, a wikipedia article, flash animations, and a googlebombing campaign, all of which are documented in an excellent article on Mark Glaser’s blog.

– Googlebombing is a technique where many bloggers link a word or phrase to a webpage, attempting to gain the top link on Google’s search results page for that search term. Search Google for “Arabian Gulf” for an example of a successful Googlebomb… or for “miserable failure”. (BBC has an article on the “miserable failure” hack, and Wikipedia has a comprehensive article on the technique.

Googlebombs can work when they try to link uncommon words or phrases to a site – they’re much harder to implement when linking to a common word. The googlebomb proposed for Alaa – linking the word “Egypt” to the Free Alaa blog – has an uphill battle, as “Egypt” is a pretty common term found in webpage anchor text.

– Jon speculates that buying Google AdWords might be a better way to advertise Alaa’s cause, and purchases ads on the keyword “Egypt”, as well as ads to call attention to his friend Dr. Yang Jingli, a Tienanmen Square activist currently detained in China. He discovers that these ads can cost a good chunk of change… especially if you want your ad to appear high up on the search page. In a sense, he encounters the same problem the Googlebombers do – choosing too common a term makes it very hard to control it within Google’s universe. But Jon is more successful in the sense that his actions immediately get his message onto Google’s results page, while the Googlebomb might take weeks or longer to work.

I’m grateful that Jon’s put such time into thinking through the issues surrounding these online activist techniques. There’s a strong tendency in the world of activism to act quickly, with little reflection on whether techniques are effective – it’s easy to argue that any effort is laudable, since lots of small actions might create large-scale changes. On the other hand, it’s easy for people to get discouraged when the actions they take don’t have the anticipated effect, which argues for the development of as sharp, refined activist tools as possible… which requires a close look at the success or failure of these different tools.

6 thoughts on “Googlebombs, or Googlebuys?”

  1. Why not a Digg campaign? It wouldn’t take that many to make a it a cause celebre among the Diggoisie, who would (trickle-down blogonomics?) spread it to the whole of the Internet.

  2. Adwords on Google might not work. I attempted to buy adwords for my sites, http://www.ncjusticefraud.com and http://www.chinaisevil.com. Google rejected my ads, stating that it does not allow ads for sites that advocate against an individual or a group protected by law. My site http://www.ncjusticefraud.com accuses the N.C. Att. Gen.and his associates of lying to the U.S. Supreme Court. My china site details atrocities by the Commu-nist Chinese. Neither of the accused are groups pro-tected by law..Google does allow sites to advertise material for sale that accuses Pres. Bush of murder and being a nazi.. Why can’t I advertise mysites. My lawsuit against Google is 06-319, D. DEl. seeking to have the internet declared a public forum. Chris Langdon

  3. Curt– a Digg campaign was tried; I had considered adding it to my study. But it had almost zero effect. It was neither disruptive nor constructive. I think were there some 55 “Diggs” but what does that mean against 1200 people who signed a petition?

    Chris– Your China website is a bit scanty. Your heart is in the right place, but it is probably better to align with existing efforts, and put a more friendly face to the campaign– that’s probably why Google did not censor by Free Yang Jianli effort.

    As per North Carolina, this appears to be a grievance you have against the state. You may well be in the right, but it is still a very delicate matter to air your grievance in an optimal way to bring about public sympathy. I would suggest trying to re-create your campaign in order to get it approved. Have you tried Yahoo or MSN?

  4. I appreciate your thoughts but, I don’t believe

    that I should be required to censor my websites to

    advertise them on Google. The internet and internet

    search engines are public forums, as alleged in my

    complaint,Langdon v. Google,et al(06-319, D. DEl) I

    am sending a copy to Professor Zittrain for any one

    who wishes to read it.

  5. I love Google for many reasons, but I think Chris’ case has legs. Google is so omnipresent to where it must begin to be accountable as a neutral platform for free speech, regardless of what legal precedent needs to be employed.

    I do not agree with Jon Garfunkel that Chris needs to “put a more friendly face to the campaign”. It’s a matter for the courts, and appears, rightfully so, to be engineered for that purpose. It is not a popularity contest with Google Adwords moderators.

  6. Mnay legal scholars believe that the internet is a
    public forum (i.e. Laurance Tribe?), and cannot bar
    First Amendment activities, i.e. my cyber-leaflett-ing. See: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cyber Forum: Public v. Private in Cyberspace Speach,” 69 Col. L. R. 1; 81 Georgtwn. L. J. 409; “Sidewalks in Cyberspace…”, Harvard J. of Law & Tech, Number 1….Google claims that it does not allow advertising for sites that advocate against an individual, or, a group protected by law from criticism. I don’t know any group protected by law from criticism…Also, Google does allow some sites to advertise that advocate against individuals. A Google search of “Impeach George Bush” or “anti Hilary Clinton” displays ads for sites advocating against them..One Google advertiser (Cafe Press) sells materials that: allege Bush committed treason and murder, and is a nazi; allege that Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kerry and Sen. Kennedy are Communists; Christians should be fed to lions; etc. Yet, I could not advertise my site, http://www.ncjusticefraud.com that alleges that the NC Att. Gen. lied to the US Supreme Court,or my site http://www.chinaisevil.com that documents some communist atrocities, on Google….Google, MSN & Yahoo discriminate against small advertisers… I mailed a copy of my lawsuit to Proff. Zittrain. If he is unable to provide you with a copy, I will send anyone a copy. Chris Langdon, qiology@aol.com

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