RealTime IT News

Google PageRanks MLK Mistake

Nicholas CarlsonReporter's Notebook: Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and you can imagine the scene in school libraries across America. There will be display cases filled with biographies, newspaper clippings and portraits of the civil rights leader.

And in the classrooms near those libraries, you can imagine students reporting on his life and its impact. Here's hoping those students didn't use Google for their research. That's because a Google search using the terms Martin Luther King still returns martinlutherking.org on its first page of results.

MartinLutherKing.org purports to provide "a true historical examination" of Dr. Martin Luther King, the Nobel Laureate, Baptist minister, and African American civil rights activist. It's run by a white supremacist organization called Stormfront.

For children, the site offers fliers to print and distribute around their schools. One is titled "The Beast As Saint: The Truth About Martin Luther King." There's also a link on the site to a page titled "Black Invention Myths."

For a little context, consider that the anti-defamation league calls the organization's other Web site, stormfront.org, a "veritable supermarket of online hate."

In November I wrote about a group of bloggers determined to do something about martinlutherking.org and it's prominent place in Google's search results. Their plan was to "Google bomb" martinlutherking.org into a lower position on the results page.

A Google bomb is an attempt to game Google's PageRank algorithm and change the search engine's order of results for a specific keyword.

Among other techniques, Google's PageRank algorithm determines a Web site's relevancy to a keyword by crawling the Internet to find out how many times that particular site is linked to on other sites and how often that keyword is used to describe the link.

The Google-bombing campaign was lead by Tom Hoffman who posted nine links on his blog to more factual Martin Luther King, Jr., Web sites and labeled them all, "Martin Luther King."

Then Hoffman asked others to do the same. Many did, including noted blogger and former Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble.

A few weeks after my article Tom pinged me in Google Talk: "Done a search for Martin Luther King lately?"

I hadn't since my article, so I popped over to Google and tried one out. To my relief, there it was: nobelprize.org instead of martinlutherking.org at the top of the search results.

I spoke to my editors and we planned for a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day article to commemorate the success.

Before starting the article, I thought I'd check to make sure the success had stuck. That's when I discovered the site had returned to its top position. Time to recast. And now, at press time, just before the article is to hit the site, martinlutherking.org is back down in the fifth spot. Still too high for my taste.

So much for that commemorative piece. I went back to Hoffman to talk to him about the fluctuation. "It really just makes no sense," he said.

One theory he came up with is that two months later, all the blog posts with anti-martinlutherking.org Google bombs in them have fallen off the main pages of their respective blogs. That would put the Google bombs into the blogs' archives, which Google might not rank as highly.

Another theory is that Google's algorithm loves the character for character match between Martin Luther King and martinlutherking.org.

But if you follow the logic of how a Google bomb works, you get that martinlutherking.org primarily owes its predominant position largely to the webmasters out there linking to it on their sites.

A Google search using the term "link:martinlutherking.org" shows you who they are. The sad irony, you'll see, is that most of the culprit webmasters are do-gooders, trying to make a point about how student researchers need to be careful on the Internet.

These do-gooders have a good point. But the fact is, they don't have to actually link to martinlutherking.org in order to make that point.

In fact, they need to stop. Perhaps some of them would if they knew the harm they were doing.

So maybe on Monday you could honor Martin Luther King, Jr., by taking the time to e-mail this article to one of the Web masters at UCLA, the Flinders University Library, TechLearning or any other of the 189 sites linking to martinlutherking.org.

Maybe they'll listen.

Nicholas Carlson is a senior associate editor for internetnews.com.