By Dave McAnally, Natural Search Supervisor, Content Solutions
It’s not often I manage to coin a blog entry around the time of the launch of a meme, but we are in the midst of just such an occasion. You’ve no doubt heard of various Google Bombs that have yielded amusing results in search engines. The premise behind such phenomena that is if you get enough websites with content referring to another in a certain way, you can control what queries that site in question shows up for. For the most part, algorithms have evolved to where you can’t simply brute force things like in the good old days, but it still happens from time to time. Witness what Google is currently suggesting when one puts in this (obscure-ish) query:
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O RLY? We are to assume the (arguably) most sophisticated search algorithm in the world thinks 303,000 people are terrified of the Chinese? Let me go ahead and issue a mea culpa in advance to Chinese readers, as I certainly don’t promote this sentiment. I think we can safely assume that a suggestion with that long of a tail certainly isn’t happenstance. So let’s check out what those 303,000 results actually look like. Go ahead and type ‘I am extremely terrified of Chinese people’ into Google and whack the search button. I’ll wait.
Now, I should mention that the consensus seems to be that this site is the originator of the meme, and it took life from there. It seems this has received considerable backlash (with a dash of dark humor naturally) which has prompted the Google algorithm to assume this to be a hot up-and-coming topic. But look at the characteristics of the Google results (note your results may vary a bit now that the cat is out of the bag and bloggers are talking about the meme, so pay no mind to those). We can still see traces of the spam and “Google bombing” (for want of a better term because that’s not entirely accurate) that may have been behind the odd suggestion.
Results like these are more or less ‘made for spam’ pages designed to inflate rankings. There’s actually a lot to learn from a page like this. Look at how the phrase “I am extremely terrified of Chinese people” is used, but also varied throughout the site (in unpleasantly spammy ways, but you get the idea). We have links about Chinese people, Chinese restaurants and “listings” (whether or not these are meaningful links isn’t the point…and they probably aren’t for the record).
We also see some clues as to the origins of this meme with polls such as this. Polls have a built-in viral aspect to them, which can influence rankings. They engender targeted traffic quickly and can inflate interest. Multiply that by a few hundred polls and this can be where the 303,000 results stem (well anymore, everyone taking note of the suggestion from Google is probably perpetuating things).
This is a fairly harmless result aside from offense Chinese people may take. I’ve talked a lot about reputation management lately, and I actually think there’s a lesson to be learned by looking at memes like this. I think it’s also a testament to how powerful viral content can really be (for better or worse). Digg has certainly gotten its fill of this. This search result is a great microcosm for how bad press can spread. Look at how social all the first page results are. I find it really interesting that Google isn’t showing us authoritative things like Digg first (however, I’d assume if Washington Post or some such were to run a story about this issue, it would rank up there fairly quickly).
If you poke around on some of those links (and do that at your own peril with some common sense – we’re dealing in some spam areas) you’ll see many link back to many of the same places. I don’t know if this was intentional or not (although I suspect it probably was), but clearly, this is giving clues to an algorithm that “I am extremely terrified of Chinese people” is a hot subject. What does this mean for SEO?
- Just because the blog isn’t a huge authority doesn’t mean it can’t win on long tail queries and thus spread. Manage your reputation and content accordingly
- The Google suggestion tool is yet another area viral content can spread. Take this into accord when thinking about your reputation management. Replace “Chinese people” with a brand name or specific person, and you can imagine potential ramifications
- I see potential to fight fire with fire here – If lesser authoritative sites can win on oddball queries like then, you can strike when the iron is hot too. This is a great opportunity to leverage your own social media assets when smaller outlets have disparaging things to say about your brand.
Whenever a weird result like this happens, it’s always really interesting to dig into those results and see what is really going on. In many ways, it’s like a behind the scenes look at what causes engines to make assumptions like the “terror of Chinese people”. We can see things taking place in results that you don’t see with typical high volume queries. It also goes to show that at the end of the day, we’re still working with machines and common sense isn’t always a guarantee!