Lessons from the Trump Googlebomb

While we tend to avoid politics in our blog, we can’t not talk about Donald Trump getting Googlebombed late last week, as it shows some important differences in how the competing search engines work and how they can be manipulated. It also highlights (obviously) the importance of taking control of your online reputation before someone else does.

Perform a Google Image Search for “Idiot,” Get Donald Trump

Starting around June 18, online activists on Reddit upvoted en masse a small handful of posts like this one that were made to associate pictures of Donald Trump with the word idiot, whether through alt tags or just word placement in the vicinity of the image.

Trump Idiot GooglebombBecause of Google’s Freshness Update, all of these contemporaneous upvotes sent a strong signal to the search engine that these posts were hot content, and should be promoted in the results page. In other words, in the eyes of Google, people would suddenly find it relevant and important for searches that included “Donald Trump” and “idiot”.

The result: Rows and rows of pictures of Donald Trump appeared for a Google image search for “idiot”.

News of the Googlebomb got out, and legitimate media outlets—like Fortune, The Guardian, ABC News, and Newsweek—reported on the incident, adding fuel to the fire by associating more images of Trump with the word idiot. Within only a few days, the traffic and SEO oomph from these sites buried the original posts in the results, handing conspiracy theorists all the ammunition they needed to suggest that the media was behind it.

Curiously, though, if you switched over to Bing and searched their images for “idiot”, the results seemed like a normal workday.

Two Possibilities for Discrepancy Between Google and Bing

Let’s ignore the politics behind the Googlebomb and focus on what it says about search engines, and particularly what made it work on Google, but not on Bing.

We see two possibilities: Either Google cares far more about social signals—including upvotes on Reddit—than Bing does, or Bing manually reacted to the event and shut it down.

We suspect the latter.

Possibility 1: Google Keeps Things Fresher

In order to give its users what they want when they type in a search and hit enter, Google keeps its finger on the pulse of the internet to see what’s trending. One way to do this is through social media by monitoring what’s being shared, liked, retweeted, and upvoted.

One way for the Trump Googlebomb to be contained within Google and not seep into Bing’s results, then, would be if Bing didn’t weigh social cues like Reddit upvotes as highly as Google does.

We find that difficult to believe. Search engines tend to move in relative lockstep when it comes to core aspects of their algorithms: When Google adds an upgrade like its Freshness Update, Bing and the other players notice and tend to follow suit. For something so integral to the results that a search engine user likely wants to see, it’s difficult to believe that Bing doesn’t utilize social media signals to alter its results listing.

Possibility 2: Bing Reacted Manually

When its algorithms have produced a singular result that it doesn’t like, Google has shown a tendency to quash the anomaly rather than altering its algorithm. For example, back in 2012 and 2013, the big craze on the internet was perusing through mugshot photos. Sites that automatically copied and hosted real mugshots from local police departments were getting millions of visitors who just wanted to gawk at the criminally accused. These sites made money by charging a fee for the accused to have their mugshot removed.

Noting that the high internet traffic was helping these morally irksome sites rank well and ruin the lives of those in the mugshots, Google instituted a manual penalty specifically against mugshot sites to kill their prominence in the results. This allowed Google to avoid a change to the core part of its algorithm that noted web traffic as a sign of a site’s importance, while still burying the offending sites.

However, while Google has used these manual penalties in the past, it has shown a wariness to use one to disarm a Googlebomb. Hence, why you still see pictures of Trump at the top of a search for “idiot”.

That these results are not also on the top of the page for a similar Bing search, then, likely says that Bing is much more willing to step in and quell the activists’ search engine manipulations.

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