Constructive Activism, Part IV: When Googlebombing Doesn’t Work

Internet | Access/Network
In looking at the attempted googlebombing campaign to support Alaa, I wanted to first consider a theory about how activism works. Activism needs to be both disruptive and constructive, offering a new narrative or a new artifact of reality for people to accept. Campaigns that are only disruptive tend to be unappreciated, or simply defined as illegal, even in this country. For example, the Denial of Service attacks of the 1990’s were hailed of “hacktivism,” but they eventually got criminalized by federal statutes. From the theoretical model, we’re not at a loss, because society (through the arm of the U.S. Congress, which occasionally acts in its interests) wanted to nurture forms forms of online protests which were constructive as well.

Googlebombing is not outlawed, as the Google service is quite resilient to such antics, and Google doesn’t mind all that much as it helps reinforce their supremacy– they serve well as a stand-in for authority to try to hack. But the googlebombing can only succeed if it can offer a solid competitive narrative.

Here’s how this campaign came about:

Rachel Rawlins, the UK-based editor of the Global Voices, in announcing the campaign, wrote that it would “bring Egypt and the Egyptian Government and the Egyptian Government’s human rights record to public attention and perhaps persuade Egypt or shame Egypt into doing something about it.” Haitham Sabbah, the Bahrain-based Middle East editor for GV, added: “Hopefully having the illegal detention of a political prisoner as the first page when the word ‘Egypt’ is searched would be an embarrassment to the Egyptian government.” The next day, Mary Joyce of Demlogue in Morocco, confidently asserted: “This campaign rests most critically on our ability to use the Google algorithm to manipulate the search engine’s page ranking for our own purposes.”

It would have been prudent to have a better idea as to the likelihood of the campaign’s success was before putting so much rhetorical stock into it.

Sunny Hundal, of Pickled Politics, expressed some doubts the following Sunday. Noting how many inbound links the top sites have he figured it would take over 5,000 links, considering that many of the blog pages wanted to link to it don’t have such a high PageRank themselves. Here’s my numbers: British Museum: 3,840; Ministry of Tourism, 3,520; CIA Factbook, 6,600; Free Alaa, 2,930, the work of perhaps 500 bloggers (since one page can be reproduced many times). How I got those numbers was in searching Yahoo’s backlinks (Google’s are known to be incomplete), and ask for the 1000th item for its best estimate (neither Google nor Yahoo actually return more than a thousand links).

Maybe it was actually within reach. But the question remains as to what would be achieved for all the work– and whether, just possibly, there could be unintended consequences.

Let’s first look at a googlebombing job that works.

When a search for miserable failure brings up George W. Bush, Google appears to validating the construction that that George W. Bush is a miserable failure. Any googlebombing campaign in which the aim is to denigrate the target works in this way. And it’s not as if a well-funded entity like another corporation or a state is going to make another claim to miserable failure.

The Free Alaa googlebomb was meant to be more disruptive; the expectation of the organizers was that this would “punish” the government of Egypt in this some way. But suppose that Googling Egypt did lead to Free Alaa. It does not work linguistically, only conceptually: Free Alaa is a concept that one might associate with Egypt, but it’s not a solid enough construction. Furthermore, what happens when Alaa is freed? What does the website focus on then– if the independent judiciary movement, then why their website and not the International Campaign in Solidarity with Egyptian Judges?– a website backed by a different set of activist groups? After all, linking to a website in order to promote a term with a popular search item is not really called googlebombing. It’s called Search Engine Marketing.

Once the website is canonized, it would be number one until somebody else pushed another, or people changed their old links. Good luck. Why would they need to change it? One possibility: the URL is – and BlogSpot is Google’s basic, non-extensible blogging tool. How ironic. Alaa, a Drupal developer, has argued in favor of moving Egyptian bloggers away from such simple tools towards extensible, open source, publishing tools (according to his friend Amr Ghabreia today).

And you ought not carry out a Google bomb without ensuring that a straightforward use of Google is working as well. Enter the terms Egypt justice— you get some articles from the Times and the Nation from a few years ago; nothing about Alaa or the protests today. Egypt free speech fares better, bringing up a post by Rebecca MacKinnon. How about searching Free Alaa? Apparently, not enough people bothered to link that to the actual Free Alaa website, it doesn’t even show up in the top fifty links (though a page on Alaa’s wbesite noting his detention is 7th).

Of course, this boils down to what people are looking for when they use Google. Google’s basic results often supplies three sets of links for a given search term:

  • What the popular will of people (website builders) has ordained over time through the PageRank algorithm.

  • What advertisers are paying you to read on that term, through the AdWords bidding system.

  • What news media have recently written/posted, through the GoogleNews news system.

The third may seem unusual to some readers, for a search on Egypt sometimes brings up headlines, and sometimes it does not. There is no consistency on the part of Google [if someone supplies one, I am reserving this space for it.]

This is a decision Google will ultimately need to make, given what their new competitors are increasingly distinguishing themselves by offering current content.

Technorati pioneered the blog search, and advertises its ability to search the World Live Web, indexing posts along tags and search terms both by what they call "authority" (really influence) and recency., which is majority owned by three major newspaper companies, also shows recent headlines, in any of 360,000 topics.

Staying at the top is easy– just keep writing new stories! The site in fact has been a reliable source of news from or about Egypt, but oddly, most of what I followed on Alaa came from news stories and not blogs. (The Times does not participate in, though they have their own index for Egypt as they do for every country). There’s a couple of reasons for this. One, the English language print media has actually done a pretty decent job covering the protests from Egypt (television, the other real half of the mainstream media is another story…). Second, the has not overtly marketed itself to blogs very strongly, perhaps in an interest emphasize published journalism (but they welcome you to suggest one to thehm). One indexed blog site on Egypt is the Arabist, edited by a Cairo-based journalist. Posts from Global Voices, and the gonzo Egyptian bloggers SandMonkey and Big Pharaoh aren’t presently included.

The last year has also seen the the emergence and growth of automated aggregators: TailRank, Memeorandum and Megite. These sites cluster news articles and blog posts together in a topical fashion, so readers can get a sense of what a variety of people are saying about each topic of the day. Staying at the "top" is a trickier business– the algorithms are some combination of popularity and immediacy. For example, Part III of this series made the very top item on website this morning, clustered with a separate story on Google trends. But that didn’t last more than 3 hours, as it was booted by “news” regarding the latest software promotion from Microsoft. At the time I write this, Megite’s top cluster of stories is about iPod playlists of politicians.

To be fair, Memeorandum has a piece from SandMonkey, second from the bottom. Furthermore, a large number of Internet readers still put their trust in a human aggregator– Glenn Reynolds, the InstaPundit. Reynolds has written about Alaa a dozen times since his arrest. That’s very admirable, but consider that his total output over the last 18 days has been four hundred posts. Reynolds, along with SandMonkey, are influential enough that they supplied almost half of the referrals to a part of the campaign that was like been more effectively disruptive than the whole of the googlebombing effort the online petition/email service hosted by HAMSA (more about this in the next part).

The question comes to this: for someone searching specifically on Egypt, how do we disrupt them from what they’re looking at to learn about this issue? For someone just going about their business, how do we let them know about Egypt? Or any other call for action in any other country?

The old media, at least the high end of it, is better at disrupting its readers from the regular habits to look at foreign news; but, aside from the 1990’s experiment in Public Journalism, doesn’t direct its audience to action. The new media, channeling the spirit of Public Journalism into “citizen journalism,” but is often too wrapped up with its readers in order to challenge them further.

And once they’re challenged, you may just get one click from them before they move on. The need is to make that one click matter in the most effective way. The googlebombing experiment, thought it failed, had at least the right intention– to get people to do a little thing and in thus collaboratively construct a new artifact of media, a mashup of traditional pieces. In the next part, I’ll look at a new type of artifact, combining some ideas from this campaign, which should serve as effectively constructive and disruptive.