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Blogger launches 'Google bomb' at McCain

Effort aims to boost Google rankings of negative news stories about Sen. John McCain

By Heather Havenstein
June 19, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A political blogger is using a technique known as "Google bombing" to enlist the aid of fellow partisan bloggers to boost the search engine rankings of nine news stories that reflect poorly on Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Chris Bowers, managing editor of the progressive blog OpenLeft, is launching the Google bombs by encouraging bloggers to embed Web links to the nine news stories about McCain in their blogs, which helps raise their ranking in Google search results. Bowers is reprising a similar Google bombing effort he undertook in 2006 against 52 different congressional candidates.

The articles Bowers is using range from a story about McCain voting to filibuster a minimum wage hike to an item about the Senate passing an expanded GI bill despite opposition from McCain. Between June 6 and Tuesday, the first story had risen eight slots in Google's rankings to the 42nd result returned on searches for "John McCain." The second story is up 16 slots during the same 11-day period to the 35th result in a search for "John McCain."

The McCain campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on Bowers' project.

Bowers is aiming by Labor Day to have three of the nine articles appear in the top 10 search results for "John McCain" and "McCain," three in results 11 through 20 and three more in 21 through 30. When he began his quest three weeks ago, none of the articles were in the top 100 search results for either keyword search, he noted. Now, all nine are in the top 60 for "John McCain" searches and eight are in the top 60 for searches of "McCain."

Bowers said that he is operating independently and is not affiliated with the campaign of Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

He said he is targeting Google because search was the most common political action taken by voters during the 2004 campaign. "We're basically targeting the most common keywords on the most common search engine for the most common form of political activity people are taking online," Bowers said in an interview.

In the project he spearheaded in 2006, Bowers said 700,000 people in key congressional districts were exposed to negative articles. That effort was launched just three weeks before election day, he added.

Bowers chose the news articles by matching the topics to existing polling data that shows what issues likely will turn voters off to McCain. He also makes sure that the articles come from news organizations like CNN.com, which already are highly ranked in Google search results, he added.

"We're just using McCain's own words -- everything we are targeting are things McCain has done or said himself. There's no bias at all. There are no opinion pieces. They are all news pieces that quote McCain himself. Obviously, it is manipulating, but search engines are not public forums and unless you act to use them for your own benefit, your opponent's information is going to get out there. This is the sort of 'do it yourself' activism that is very much in line with the tone of this campaign," Bowers said.

Julie Barko Germany, director of The Institute of Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, said that while Bowers is probably not the only person to use such tactics, he is the first person she knows of to admit it publicly. She added that while they would be loathe to admit it, the campaigns themselves are likely using similar strategies.

"We know where Americans go first to search for information," she added. "They turn to a search engine. A Google bomb strategy is an interesting way to push negative or positive articles to the attention of the public."

While people who use the Internet regularly -- especially younger voters -- are not likely to be influenced by this type of a tactic, people who don't go online often may be influenced by stories that appear high in search results, Germany said. "That is an audience you'd worry about," she added. "They don't understand the subtleties of what is going on online."

In addition, she added that both the McCain and Obama campaigns have spent a lot of time, energy and money on search engine optimization strategies.

"If I were the McCain camp, I would be a little bit worried about it," she said. "When you have something like this, it could potentially be seen as sabotaging what you're doing in a subtle way. I don't necessarily see it as a major threat but more as a subtle threat."

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