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Dropping Google Bombs Against Hate

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Web site Stormfront.org is a "veritable supermarket of online hate."

According to Google, a Stormfront-hosted Web site is the most relevant search result for a "Martin Luther King" query.

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

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 MartinLutherKing.org to a page titled, "Black Invention Myths."

Tim Hoffman has had enough. Hoffman is the project manager for SchoolTool, an open source project to develop a common global school administration infrastructure.

But Hoffman also maintains a personal blog called "Tuttle SVC" and it's from there that he launched his bombing campaign.

"I'm pretty much sick of the whole martinlutherkingdotorg shtick," Hoffman wrote on the blog. "The people behind it are evil.

"What we need here is a good old fashioned Google bomb."

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.

So on his blog, Hoffman dropped his Google Bombs: nine links to less offensive Martin Luther King Web sites and labeled them all, "Martin Luther King."

Then he made it a campaign by asking others to do the same in an effort to drop Stormfront's Web site from its perch as the top Google search result for "Martin Luther King."

Many have responded to his call, including noted blogger and former Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble. On his blog, he calls it "reversing the damage."

Given Google's "don't be evil" motto, you'd think the company would be appreciative. It's not.

"We don't condone the practice of Google bombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results," a Google spokesperson told internetnews.com.

That's bad news for the do-good Google bombers, according to search engine guru Danny Sullivan.

He told internetnews.com that if Google wants to, it can stop the bombing campaign at any time and that Hoffman's particular method will be easy for them to target.

"The biggest mistake in the campaign is that they are all being encouraged to use the same list of several links, all using the words Martin Luther King in them," Sullivan said. "That's much easier to detect as a link-bombing campaign than one single link."

Sullivan cautioned that this mess shouldn't be made into a Google-only issue, adding that it impacts any search engine.

And it's not too hard to understand Google's position in this issue.

Google's business is contingent on its ability to find the most relevant results for search queries.

Sometimes Google might turn over the wrong stone and find something nasty, but the company can't go around encouraging users to manipulate its proprietary algorithm.

Users trust the algorithm's results and so advertisers will pay plenty to have their links placed next to them. So on Google you get what the crawler finds, pretty or not.

"Don't be evil" does not extend so far as to censorship of what Hoffman calls evil.

But the same isn't true everywhere. Search engines Ask.com and Yahoo both keep the offending site off their search results pages for a "Martin Luther King" query.

An Ask.com spokesperson told internetnews.com that the results order is due to the superiority of Ask's ExpertRank algorithm over Google's PageRank.

Sullivan, however, said Ask doesn't appear to include MartinLutherKing.org in its index of sites, and so Ask's algorithm probably had little to do with it.

Yahoo spokesperson Aaron Ferstman told internetnews.com it is his company's policy to review and remove defamatory sites upon user request.

It may come as surprise to hear that original Google-bomber-for-good Tom Hoffman told internetnews.com he hopes Google chooses not to resort to censorship.

"The system is designed to harvest the intelligence of people. When you have a situation like this, you just have to add more human intelligence to the system. For Google that comes in the form of more links."

There's hope Google will allow the gang of do-good Google-bombers to do their work.

"Google's faith in our system has produced a hands-off policy when it comes to correcting for the effects of Google bombs in the past," the Google spokesperson said. "The integrity of the search product remains intact."

Yet so does, for now, MartinLutherKing.org's position at the top. Whether human intelligence has its way is not yet for certain.