Google Kills Bush’s Miserable Failure Search & Other Google Bombs

Google has finally defused the “Google Bomb” that has returned US President George W. Bush at the top of its results in a search on miserable failure. The move wasn’t a post-State Of The Union Address gift for Bush. Instead, it’s part of an overall algorithm change designed to stop such mass link pranks from working.

A search today now shows the US White House page carrying Bush’s name is no longer top listed. Also gone are pages about Michael Moore and former US president Jimmy Carter that were on the first page of results due to Google bombing actions.

What’s not missing are articles about the Google bombing incident itself, including my own article I wrote back in January 2004 from when I worked at Search Engine Watch. The algorithm change hasn’t impacted these.

This is because the change is designed to stop the pranks from happening rather than legitimate commentary about such activities. Google isn’t saying exactly how this is being done. But Google says it’s done automatically, without any human intervention.

“It’s completely algorithmic,” said Google spam fighting czar Matt Cutts, adding “we’re not going to claim it’s 100 percent perfect.”

Why the change? Too many people are misunderstanding that Google itself is not somehow endorsing the particular views of these bombs. From Google’s statement on the Google Webmaster Central blog about today’s change:

People have asked about how we feel about Googlebombs, and we have talked about them in the past. Because these pranks are normally for phrases that are well off the beaten path, they haven’t been a very high priority for us. But over time, we’ve seen more people assume that they are Google’s opinion, or that Google has hand-coded the results for these Googlebombed queries. That’s not true, and it seemed like it was worth trying to correct that misperception. So a few of us who work here got together and came up with an algorithm that minimizes the impact of many Googlebombs.

There have been a variety of Google bombs over the years (such as on this list), but the Bush bomb is most famous. It came to light in December 2003, after a grassroots campaign started two months earlier by George Johnston of the Old Fashion Patriot blog began to work. From Johnston’s instructions:

Let’s get everyone to link to with the words “Miserable Failure” Our goal is to make Shrubya the top google pick.

It’s fun, it’s easy just <a href=”” >Miserable Failure</a> in your favorite web page will look like Miserable Failure

When the campaign succeeded, Google came under fire but argued no one was “hurt” by the activity. From a New York Time article in December 2003:

Craig Silverstein, Google’s director for technology, says the company sees nothing wrong with the public using its search engine this way. No user is hurt, he said, because there is no clearly legitimate site for “miserable failure” being pushed aside.

Moreover, he said, Google’s results were taking stock of the range of opinions that are expressed online. “We just reflect the opinion on the Web,” he said, “for better or worse.”

I took some issue with that statement:

Unlike what Google claims in this latest incident, the results that currently come up for miserable failure do not “reflect the opinion on the web,” nor is it true that “no user is hurt” or that there is no “clearly legitimate site for ‘miserable failure’ being pushed aside.”

This Google Bombing was done by at most a few hundred links pointing at the biography, if that many. Google annoyingly makes it impossible to tell exactly how many links are involved using the term, but to say that this particular campaign is the same as the “opinion on the web” is absurd. So only a few hundred people are able to speak for millions of web users? This isn’t the web’s opinion — it’s a particular opinion on the web.

Users are also hurt, because there are indeed “legitimate” sites for this query that get knocked down in the results.

What’s a legitimate site? Seems like the Dick Gephardt For President site deserves top ranking, since he appears to have christened Bush’s administration a “miserable failure” as part of his campaign slogan. In short, Gephardt’s site is an originating source for this term and actually provides much more useful information for those wondering how it relates to Bush than the biography prank.

Rather than be first, Gephardt is ranked eighth. Only two weeks ago, he was ranked third. At this rate, the game Google’s happy for people to play (see new entries of Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Michael Moore) will have pushed Gephardt’s site out of the top results and into oblivion altogether.

Another good listing is an article from the Atlantic Monthly that explores how Gephardt is using “miserable failure” as part of his campaign to attack Bush. Again, this is a far more useful site for users than ranking the Bush biography first. Only two weeks ago, this was ranked second. Now the gaming has pushed it to fifth.

After the initial fallout, Google went through the bomb having another round of publicity when it was noticed in September 2005 to be working for just the word failure. The renewed attention caused Google to create a special ad explaining that the listing was not the result of some type of Google bias against Bush. The ad linked to a statement on the official Google Blog:

If you do a Google search on the word [failure] or the phrase [miserable failure], the top result is currently the White House’s official biographical page for President Bush. We’ve received some complaints recently from users who assume that this reflects a political bias on our part. I’d like to explain how these results come up in order to allay these concerns.

Google’s search results are generated by computer programs that rank web pages in large part by examining the number and relative popularity of the sites that link to them. By using a practice called googlebombing, however, determined pranksters can occasionally produce odd results. In this case, a number of webmasters use the phrases [failure] and [miserable failure] to describe and link to President Bush’s website, thus pushing it to the top of searches for those phrases. We don’t condone the practice of googlebombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results, but we’re also reluctant to alter our results by hand in order to prevent such items from showing up. Pranks like this may be distracting to some, but they don’t affect the overall quality of our search service, whose objectivity, as always, remains the core of our mission.

What in 2003 was deemed the web’s opinion now was viewed as a prank. I didn’t disagree with that view. Such bombings have been prank-like. But if so, it was odd that Google was tolerating them, as I wrote after the statement went up:

Pranks, when not involving paid links or for some commercial gain, are apparently tolerated. Pranks involving commercial gain may be deemed spam and so threatening to the purity of the index that sites might be banned, be prevented from passing link reputation or other actions.

As it turned out, plenty of people were not only seeing the bio ranking tops for failure but actually visiting the White House via that link. In November 2005, a glitch with a new Google service made it possible for me to discover that “failure” was the most popular term sending traffic to the White House web site. As I wrote:

Not only is the White House ranking well for that word, but it’s also the biggest driver of traffic to the web site. Lots of people are clicking after searching on the term.

Specifically, here are the “Top Search Query Clicks” for the site, as reported by the Google sitemaps system:

  1. failure
  2. failure
  3. white house
  4. abraham lincoln
  5. george washington

These show the five most popular queries that are sending the site traffic. In other words, of all the ways the White House web site might be searched for and rank well on Google, these are the terms sending the most visitors “downstream” to the White House.

Nope, I have no idea why failure appears twice. But it might be related to something that can at least sooth President Bush’s feelings a bit. In the past, a search for [miserable failure] would bring up Bush’s bio first, then bring up President Jimmy Carter’s bio second. So some of this traffic might be related to Carter clicks.

The Bush Administration almost certainly tried to alter Google results itself through a change it made to the White House web site in September 2006. It redirected the Bush bio page to a general page about all US presidents. As I wrote, that move would likely have condemned future US presidents to also be ranked for the term:

Why the change? My money is on the Bush Administration finally getting someone smart about search engines in to “solve” the miserable failure problem. The new page is a common page that potentially may be used by all US Presidents, rather than one specifically about George W. Bush. All those links making the old page come up will now make the overall page for ALL US Presidents rank well for that term.

Interestingly, this “overall” page seems to have existed nearly as long as the dedicated page to Bush, according to the Internet Archive. In January 2001, it hosted his bio. By September 13, 2001, it became an overview page, with his bio moved to that dedicated URL above.

Eventually, Bush will leave office, and so a dedicated page to him will return. This will likely be something like this:

That follows the naming convention of pages for other US Presidents, as you’ll find here. It also begs the question of why it wasn’t created, if the Bush Administration suddenly felt the White House pages about US presidents needed a shake up.

Interestingly again, if you visit that page, you’ll see that Bush still has a dedicated page listed here:

Since that’s actually his bio, the old bio more appropriately should point to that location.

Political games aside, Bush should have a unique page dedicated to himself, rather than making use of a generic page any US President might later encounter. The reason is simple. There are actually plenty of educators and other with no political gripe against Bush that might need to link to his bio or already have done so. This change fails to defuse the link bomb but certainly messes up many pages pointing at his bio with good intentions in the years to come.

Fortunately, Google has now solved the problem both for Bush and his eventual successors. Overall, I’m happy with the change. Though Google bombs worked for a small number of terms, it just didn’t feel right that Google effectively allowed “cyber-graffiti” of this nature, as the New York Times called it, to happen.

Of course, I’ve long preferred the term “link bomb” because as I’ve written, these bombs go off at more than Google itself. Indeed, while Bush may be off the top spot at Google, he remains top ranked for both miserable failure at Yahoo and Microsoft and in second place at Ask.

For the record, here’s Google from last September:

Miserable Failure Before

And here it is today:

Miserable Failure After

Cutts said that the new analysis technique works for bombs in other languages (jämmerlicher waschlappen is apparently one non-English bomb that’s been defused). It is also designed only to stop bombs where the “victim” themselves isn’t trying to rank for a term. For example, french military victories still brings up this parody page which wants to rank for that term.

As I said, Google’s not explaining how the new system is working. Looking at the words people use when they link to a web site is a key component on how Google determines relevancy. For example, thousands of quality links to Amazon using the word books within the link text itself helps that site come up in the top results for the word books in a search.

To defuse Googlebombs, Google can’t simple disregard link text overall. Otherwise, the entire ranking system might suffer. Nor can it try to discount sites that don’t use the terms contained in the links (IE, not rank the Bush page because the page didn’t say the words “miserable failure” on it). This is because many times, pages fail to use the terms they are relevant for. Link text can help save them from being overlooked, in these situations.

Google can track when links first appear pointing to particular sites. It may be that the new system looks to see if there’s a sudden spike of links all using the same words, which might indicate a Google bomb going off. This would be especially so in cases where it also determines are no “authority” sites really ranking well for those words.

That’s some speculation, and there’s going to be plenty more. Feel free to leave your own thoughts on what’s happening. Cutts also has mentioned the Google change briefly on his personal blog. You can expect plenty of speculation to be showing up in the comments associated with his post, as well.

Postscript: Since I originally posted, there’s lots of commentary and analysis of the change. Techmeme’s the easiest place to point you for a consolidation of these. Check out blog posts on the topic consolidated by Techmeme here and here. Also, Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable points to forum discussions here.

I pointed at Philipp Lenssen’s list of Google bombs earlier in the story. He’s now updated that list from Google Blogoscoped here, showing bombs that have been defused.

If you have interesting commentary, feel free to add it via the comments below. Just see my guidelines for link dropping over here. And remember, we now also have a comments feed you can take.

Postscript (Jan. 23, 2008): See Obama Is “Failure” At Google, “Miserable Failure” At Yahoo for the latest update to this story.

About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • graywolf

    I’m less than convinced it’s an automagic type thing for example [santorum] is still bombed kinda NSFW

  • Matt Cutts

    graywolf, [santorum] isn’t a Googlebomb, it’s straight SEO. Here’s the difference. With a Googlebomb, you’re causing someone else’s site to rank. With SEO, you’re promoting your own site. So is promoting themselves for [santorum], which is SEO.

    This change isn’t targeting SEO, so it doesn’t impact people trying to rank their own sites. Another historical example is [french military victories]. That’s not a Googlebomb; that’s one person trying to SEO their own page to #1 for a phrase.

    A Googlebomb is when you’re trying to cause *someone else’s* site to rank for phrases like “враг народа” or “talentless hack” or “mouton insignifiant” or whatever.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Here’s my guess at the algorithm, *something like*:

    IF the links to the page contain [BOMB] and

    0) There are lot of links [BOMB]

    1) [BOMB] does not appear on the page or metadata

    2) [BOMB] is the most common link to the page

    3) There are “very few” links of form [BOMB otherwords]

    THEN ignore all links with [BOMB]

    This preserves the ranking of pages talking about it, since they’ll have the words on the page, even in the title.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Slightly elaborated at:
    Defusing The Google-Bomb – And Maybe Reigniting It

    Key point: We can test this by adding lots of links with both the expected text and [BOMB]
    (example given in post, I won’t abuse Danny’s hospitality by putting it here).

  • Bill Slawski

    Not bad, Seth. Compare that to what Anna Patterson wrote in the section on “Document Annotation for Improved Ranking” in the following document:

    Phrase-based indexing in an information retrieval system.

    Instead of [BOMB otherwords], it tries to locate “related phrases” (some examples in the patent application). It also provides a means of weighing the strength of related phrases.

    Of course, they could be doing something different, but this is the only document I know of from Google that discusses a means of stopping Google Bombing:

    [0153] This approach has the benefit of entirely preventing certain types of manipulations of web pages (a class of documents) in order to skew the results of a search. Search engines that use a ranking algorithm that relies on the number of links that point to a given document in order to rank that document can be “bombed” by artificially creating a large number of pages with a given anchor text which then point to a desired page. As a result, when a search query using the anchor text is entered, the desired page is typically returned, even if in fact this page has little or nothing to do with the anchor text. Importing the related bit vector from a target document URL1 into the phrase A related phrase bit vector for document URL0 eliminates the reliance of the search system on just the relationship of phrase A in URL0 pointing to URL1 as an indicator of significance or URL1 to the anchor text phrase.

  • Matt Cutts

    Bill, that’s an interesting find. I don’t think we plan to talk about it in more detail than saying it’s improved link analysis, so unfortunately I can neither confirm nor deny that links to a given page are interacting with bit vectors.

  • Bill Slawski

    Thanks, Matt. Appreciate the response.

    That patent application, and a number of its related patent applications are over a couple of years old, so there has been some opportunity to explore the processes those describe and some other approaches. The bit vector approach is an interesting one though.

  • TheFalcon

    www[dot]martinlutherking[dot]org is still bombed, albeit ranked 3rd.

    matt, im not sure if this is SEO or bombing

    i think this one will be one of the hardest to unbomb because
    a) uses the name ‘martin luther king’
    b) the nobel prize site and the wikipedia site is up there because of other people trying to remove the .org a.k.a. bombing it

    any ideas on this?

  • pref

    I agree with your idea: Instead of [BOMB otherwords], it tries to locate “related phrases” (some examples in the patent application).
    It also provides a means of weighing the strength of related phrases.

  • graywolf

    Matt, so you’re saying you’re “algorithmically smart enough” to determine if all of those links are spreading to someone orchestrating them, or not? You’ll excuse me if I reserve a bit of skepticism about that.

  • HitProf

    >Cutts said that the new analysis technique works for bombs in other languages

    It seems to work. At least, the best known Dutch Googlebomb raar kapsel (funny hair dress) doesn’t return the Prime Minister’s web site anymore :)

  • kevgibbo

    I think this seems to work well, but does it mean that the links found will be devalued in terms of passing on PageRank?

  • NLC

    At the risk of greying my Luminescent Pearly White Hat…

    If you search for “liar” (in Canada) you get a satirical image of Bush in the onebox:

    Since the change is apparently algorithmic, and we are yet to hear of Google reading images, it… theoretically… should be possible to linkbomb using the images in the onebox. Which… theoretically… could be even more effective (have a greater impact on the user) than bringing up the website. Not that I’m suggesting it…

  • Everett

    When I link to George’s bio using the words “miserable failure” I’m not “google bombing”. I am expressing my opinion about the man in the form of a hypertext links, which is what the Google algo is supposed to be all about. Democratic, remember! This algo change is BS !

    What’s next? Are you going to change the SERPS every time a company complains that they rank well for “bad customer service”? Maybe there’s a REASON they rank that way!

    Yes, I’m angry.

  • SEO Expert

    When talking SEO to potential freelance clients, I’ve always used this example as a “what NOT to do”, but also explaining the value of inbound links. I’m left with using the Adobe “click here” example.

    Sorry Seth, but “click here” actually disproves your theory, in that there is no text on Adobe’s download page associated with that search term. I for one appreciate the effort and research though.

    I’m left wondering how this will change will affect PageRank. I did notice my toolbar updated yesterday as well. However, from what I understand, the TB PR feature has a significant delay from the true PR in Google’s database.

    Quality content is still the way to go in my opinion. However, based on how I found this page so quickly when searching for miserable failure (after looking like a deer in the headlights with a client yesterday), I’m convinced that Social Bookmarks & sites such as Digg have just been promoted by Google.

    Internal linking and static sitemaps haven’t been affected by this change from what I’ve seen thus far. Phil at has a great PR calculator that I used to test the impact of change. It actually measures PR of pages as they relate to the internal links on a site. In other words, external links were impacted, internal links were not.

  • Matt Cutts

    TheFalcon, martinlutherking(dot)org is trying to show up #1 for [martin luther king], so that’s SEO rather than a Googlebomb.

    HitProf, thanks for mentioning that; I wasn’t aware of the [raar kapsel] query. Mind if I mention that as if people ask for other examples?

    graywolf, we’re happy to hear about any Googlebombs that weren’t handled well in the Google web search help group. Feedback is always welcome.

    NLC, we only worried about web search ranking in this change, but I’ll mention your comment to our image onebox team. :)

  • Helen

    Happy to be of service, Matt. :)

  • HitProf

    >Mind if I mention that as if people ask for other examples?

    Sure, go ahead.

  • Lucky Lester

    I am with Everett, sounds more like censorship to me too.

  • IncrediBILL

    The Google Bomb detection obviously doesn’t trap small instances (Google Firecrackers?) as I still have a company I put in the #2 spot for an obscure term with just a couple of links and it’s still there.

    It would appear that moderation in Google Bombing is the answer ;)

  • WebOptimist

    Kind of blows away the idea of keyword optimized links doesn’t it? Not too crazy about that, Google.

    Besides, the timing is terrible. According to all of the polls, searching for “miserable failure” now gives us innacurate results!

  • Jonathan

    While Googlebombing can be used for bad, it can also be used by good. So the new google change limits the effects of purposeful googlebombing, while doing nothing about purposeful SEO.

    Google has just decided that if is willing to pay enough to SEO consultants it can be in the top return results for “homosexuality”.

    Sorry google, THAT is evil.

  • Mark

    “This is because the change is designed to stop the pranks from happening rather than legitimate commentary about such activities. Google isn’t saying exactly how this is being done. But Google says it’s done automatically, without any human intervention.

  • lauralippay


    Well it was awesome while it lasted.

  • The Fire Resistant Hamster

    Now I’m not going to pretend I live and breathe SEO (yet), but the defusing of Google bombs does make me wonder what this means for the value of link anchor text in general. Is there still a point in using relevant link anchor text? I’d say so. But where’s the ‘spam’ limit? When are lots of links using the same anchor text pointing to one website ‘OK and when is it perceived as spam?

    I can add a foreign ‘bomb’ that doesn’t work anymore: ‘raar kapsel’ in The search ‘raar kapsel’ (‘weird hair’) would point to the Dutch Prime Minister’s website, Jan Peter Balkenende. It still works in Yahoo though.

    The odd thing is that the ‘click here’ search still shows Adobe as the first result:

    The above makes me wonder (once again), where’s the line? What’s the limit? When does repetitive link anchor text go from handy SEO to spam?

    At the moment I’m just happy it still works in Yahoo. I like to use ‘famous’ bombs as examples to clarify the power of link anchor text to new people at work who often don’t have a clue about basic SEO aspects before they come to work for us.

    TFRH ^_^b

  • Seth Finkelstein

    “SEO expert” – Hmm, a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact? Well, let me refine it to also having a “trust” factor in the links.

  • bood guy

    Googlebombing is a specific _behavior_, so you would not be able to filter out such manipulation by looking at a static anchor text “landscape”.

    I think time is factored in. If Google attaches a timestamp to every incoming link (when it founds the link), a Googlebomb should most probably appear as an abnormal bulge, a relatively limited _period_ when most newly created links conform to the Finkelstein-algorithm.

    The Adobe “click here” phenomenon spreads out in time. There is no such abnormal bulge i.e. it can be distinguished from a Googlebomb.

  • The Fire Resistant Hamster

    Yeah I can see the ‘over time’ factor, but that would mean that you can still create a ‘bomb’… it’d just have to be really tactfully implemented (over time), taking some of the fun and use out of it. Or would that go in the direction of SEO-practices again? Ah well, at least Google gives us enough stuff to blog about. xD

  • Matt Cutts

    Jonathan, while this change is targeted specifically at Googlebombs, it doesn’t change the fact that Google pays attention to search engine optimization (SEO) as well.

    Mark, you’re correct that that would be SEO and not a Googlebomb. But that’s a nofollow’ed link, so it wouldn’t affect Google’s ranking for that phrase which, as you know, happens to be an ongoing SEO contest. :)

  • Steve Amundsen

    I find Matt’s comments most interesting. It is clear to me that Google is spending a lot of time and resources to determine relevance on what is real, and not contrived. Intelligent link analysis and intelligent website and webpage analysis do not and can not exist in separate vacuums. Diffusing the Googlebombs (through an automated process, no less!) shows the world that Google is becoming more intelligent at providing true relevance. Any honest SEO professional should stand up and cheer. Kudos to Matt and his team of truth diggers!

  • JuanTanomera

    Interesting though, isn’t it, that someone at the White House hasn’t figured out that the word “failure” ought to be a forbidden word on their site?

    Why? Because presence of the word “failure” will simply confirm the validity of outside references.

    Need proof? Search “failure” on Google today and you will find the White House right at the very top because of a quotation from the president asserting that Congress is courting “failure”.

    An intelligent person in the WH information factory would have banned the word to avoid the inevitable repeated perdition.

  • eve

    Does this mean that I can now stop boycotting Google?

  • Jonathan

    What a great, well researched article. I still can not really understand how google will eliminate googlebombing: Do they reduce the priority of all linkt texts or are the blacklisting googlebomb-keywords? I really don’t know….

    Best regards!

  • tercume

    Kind of blows away the idea of keyword optimized links doesn’t it? Not too crazy about that, Google.

  • serkcan

    An intelligent person in the WH information factory would have banned the word to avoid the inevitable repeated perdition.

  • pcayata

    An intelligent person in the WH information factory would have banned the word to avoid the inevitable repeated perdition.Thanks
    kale kapı

  • erdogduemlak

    Although I agree in principy with what you’re saying, you’ve glossed over the importance of a large link network, which we all knew before there were any worthwhile search engines, which is TRAFFIC without the search engine itself.

  • NanditaB

     Hi Matt,

    Google bomb doesn’t mean – who is ranking/promoting whose site. Actual Google bomb  is ” Pure intention “.

    1# Example of Google bomb – If somebody helps to rank or promotes a website to rank higher with ill intention, then its Google bomb.

    2# Example of SEO – If someone promotes a website on SERPs by following the SEO standards of SEs (Google, Yahoo, Bing) with a good intention, then its SEO.

    Final word – It’s not ” I’m promoting my site is SEO and  others’ sites for money is Google bomb. It involves pure intention”.

    Nandita B.

  • Daniel Tetreault

    Shame…because in my opinion, Bush Jr was a “miserable failure.” I think Google should have left the Google bomb.
    Daniel Tetreault.
    Victoria, BC

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