Skeptics! Load your google bombs!

There’s an important task we need all skeptics to perform this week. It is to help one of our own and to help the movement. Please read on for instructions on what to do, but let me explain the technology behind this first.

What is a google bomb?

You may have noticed me mention google bombs occasionally. They are incredibly useful in the promotion of special purpose websites such as the ones skeptics build. Essentially it involves as many different web sites as possible linking to a specific target site with a specific piece of text.

Google uses an algorithm called Page Rank which uses (among other things) number of other sites which link to a given site, to determine its ranking in results. The algorithm has changed over the years since the original patent, and many aspects of it are now considered trade secrets by Google. But it is known that aside from the number of incoming links, other aspects which are considered are the content of the target site and the text used to link to the site.

Page rank and algorithms like it can give an idea of the overall importance of a site on the web, but how are results for individual searches ranked? That has to be decided in a way that is specific to the search being done. And so Google considers how the text of the search relates to the text on the target page, and also (crucially) the text used to link to the site.

And so if hundreds or thousands of web sites all decide to link to a given target with a given piece of text, it will affect where that site appears in Google searches for that text.

Why is this important?

Studies have shown that since the rise of search engines like Google, the vast majority of users on the net rely on them almost exclusively as a navigation tool. If you are an experienced user of the Internet, this may seem alien to you. After all, aren’t bookmarks far faster and more reliable? Can’t one easily type a URL? I understand your confusion.

The fact remains, there are huge numbers of people out there that are not comfortable with typing a URL or with maintaining a list of bookmarks. They simply type the name of the site they want into the search box in their browser and find it in the results. They do this because it works.

Naive users notwithstanding, successful webmasters know from examining their logs that the vast majority of their incoming traffic comes from search engines. There are entire businesses oriented around optimizing a given business website for specific search terms. It is called search engine optimization or SEO. SEO experts know that whether you appear in the first page of search results is crucial to the success of your web site. In fact, there have been several documented incidents where Google has decreased the page rank of sites for one reason or another, causing a huge drop in traffic. This has even spawned lawsuits on occasion.

In the skeptic movement we know we must get the word out to what Michael Shermer calls “fence sitters” — people who have no strong opinion on skeptical topics. If someone is considering visiting a psychic or a homeopath, it can be crucial that they read some skeptical material about the topic first. In order for that to happen, they have to be able to find our sites easily. Ideally, they should find our sites accidentally while searching for the very things we oppose. We can be a huge force for good by making sure our content is easily found by people like this.

Stop Sylvia Browne is in trouble

As many skeptics know, Robert S. Lancaster has done a huge service to the skeptic community and the world at large by creating the sites Stop Kaz and Stop Sylvia Browne. In August of this year, Robert had a stroke, and has been in the hospital undergoing rehabilitation ever since then.

Unfortunately, it happens that the renewal for the domain name of the Stop Sylvia Browne site came due in the early days when he was in the hospital. This is a fee you must pay every two or three years or so to maintain control of a name like “skeptools.com” on the Internet. Although she was diligently paying the renewal fees for the hosting site itself, his wife missed the notice for the domain name and it expired. This would not be so bad, except someone else noticed this expiration and bought up the rights to the name after it expired. This person has posted a different set of content that is largely credible of psychics in general on the original domain name.

If you do a Google search for Sylvia Browne you will see that Robert’s site is the second result, right below Sylvia Browne’s own web site. This is a fantastic way to get the attention of people who might be considering buying products or services from Browne.

Except now that link no longer goes to Robert’s site. We need to fix this.

ACTION ITEMS

We need every skeptic webmaster and blogger out there to do the following, as soon as possible:

DO: Link to Robert’s site using the domain name stopsylvia.com.

DO NOT: Use any other domain name such as a .NET or .US domain that you have heard about, even if they appear to work correctly. There are a number of aliases for the site, but it is important for search ranking purposes that we all use the same URL when we link.

DO: Use the text “Sylvia Browne” within your hyperlink, to help Google discover that this link is relevant for that search. Your HTML should look like this:

<a href="http://stopsylvia.com">Sylvia Browne</a>

DO NOT: Include the word “Stop” inside the hyperlink. In order to appeal to fence sitters, we need to make this site appear in searches for “Sylvia Browne”, not “Stop Sylvia Browne”. The latter phrase will happen naturally in Google without our help due to the content of the site.

DO: VERY IMPORTANT! Change all the links on your site, even ones in ancient pages, old blog posts and in your blogroll. This not only helps Robert even more, but it will reduce the (now undeserved) ranking of the old name which is now owned by a bad guy.

DO: Consider adding a similar link to your signature file on any online forums you frequent. On many of these sites (including the JREF Forum) changing your signature retroactively changes your old messages as well!

DO NOT: Waste time adding links to sites which use rel=”nofollow” on user submitted links. For instance, links in blog comments on most blogs will not help, and links in Wikipedia will not help. If you are unsure, use the “View Source” or “View HTML” option of your browser to look at a typical page of the site with user submitted links. If you see something like this:

<a rel="nofollow" href="http://stopsylvia.com">Sylvia Browne</a>

Then a user-submitted link on that site is not going to help at all.

DO: Spread the word to as many bloggers and webmasters you can.

Questions

Some of the articles I linked to above indicated that Google takes a dim view of manipulation of search results. In fact, they have been known to completely remove a page from the index when they catch that page engaging in “manipulative” tactics. Won’t we get Google mad at Robert if we do this? No, this is not likely.

The tactics mentioned in those articles refer to webmasters who create multiple sites, usually on free services like blogspot, and use them to boost the ranking of their own real site. Almost always, this is done for a commercial purpose such as selling a product or advertising. Often it is done with deceptive techniques, such as using links that do not reflect the actual content of the site.

This is not the same thing as what we are doing. We are organically linking from hundreds of skeptic sites and blogs which are controlled by differnet people and organizations all over the world. We are linking to a site which has no commercial purpose whatsoever. And we are creating links that are not deceptive in the least: they are explicitly about the topic of the site.

Earlier this year skeptics did the same thing to boost the site “Expelled Exposed” up to second place in searches for the movie Expelled. The site is still there, because those links and that ranking are entirely relevant. They are exactly what Google wants their search engine to do. And so it is with the Stop Sylvia Browne links.

Any other questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments.

EDIT: Added note about .NET and .US domains which exist.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

15 Responses to Skeptics! Load your google bombs!

  1. Pingback: Stop Sylvia Browne needs your help | Neural Gourmet

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  9. Jolly Bloger says:

    I’ve just noticed this today, and I’m not sure how significant it is. It appears as though Google has moved their ‘web history’ enabled search results from the labs onto the main search site. My search results now have, by default, the option to promote and remove specific links in a given search.

    Do you know if promoting links works in a similar fashion to Google bombing, or does it remain completely local? For a start, I have promoted all of the skeptical sites in the results pages for “Sylvia Browne”.

  10. rigger151 says:

    Does anyone know if posting this to Facebook etc will help?

  11. Tim Farley says:

    To answer those last two questions:

    No, the new web history (or “SearchWiki”) enabled results in Google do not affect other users at this time. This is easy to see, just click “sign out” at upper right and the results will return to what Google normally displays.

    I suspect Facebook link posting will not help, because of the heavy use of Javascript and AJAX on that site will prevent Google from crawling it. Plus I’m sure Facebook is aware of the possibility of abuse and is no doubt adding NOFOLLOW to their links.

  12. Pingback: Web archiving is an important skeptic tool « Skeptical Software Tools

  13. Pingback: TikkiWeb » Blog Archive » Stop Sylvia Browne

  14. Pingback: Search engine optimization is another thing chiropractors get wrong « Skeptical Software Tools

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