If you type “miserable failure” into Google, you might not expect to see links to presidential biography pages, but that’s exactly what you would have encountered in late 2003.

For some time, a search for “miserable failure” or just “failure” would populate a link to the biography of George W. Bush (among other targets like Jimmy Carter).

The prank orchestrated by political activist George Johnston coincided with the 2004 election, which also saw the Google bombing of Democratic candidate John Kerry.

The Bush prank and other Google bombs threw Google’s political biases into question and prompted algorithmic changes to stop these pranks from happening.

Google Bombing – What Exactly Is It?

Browsing google website

Google bombing (a.k.a. “link bombing” because it impacts other search engines besides Google) manipulates search algorithms to rank certain web pages high for specific search terms.

When the system works how it’s supposed to, high-ranking results link to the most relevant pages.

While some internet users might find a George Bush biography relevant to the “miserable failure” search query, its ranking was driven up intentionally by a specific group of users.

”Okay, Rodney, but why is this a problem?” Well, it comes down to a few things:

  1. Users began to assume the “miserable failure” result page reflected the political opinions of Google, which wasn’t necessarily true.
  2. Google strives to offer objective results, not prioritize the opinions of one group of internet users.
  3. The fact that a page can rank for a search term when the keyword doesn’t exist in its code is problematic.

It’s true that all search engine optimization (SEO) efforts manipulate search results in a way, but a Google bomb takes things to a whole new level.

This tactic undermines the intended effects of keywords: The page ranks for a keyword because that term exists somewhere within the page’s code, be that on the page, in the URL, or in the page’s metadata.

A Google bomb uses a sudden influx of backlinks to form connections between web pages and irrelevant search terms used as the links’ anchor text.

Google’s algorithm associates a link’s anchor text with the page it points to more than the page it links from. In this case, it established a connection between the search term “miserable failure” and the Bush biography page, even though no other association existed.

The 2003 George Bush Prank – How Did They Do It?


The George Bush bomb started in 2003 when Johnston instructed readers of the Old Fashioned Patriot blog to create backlinks to President Bush’s official biography page on the White House government site with the anchor text “miserable failure.”

Marketers and site owners use backlinking strategies to gain higher rankings. In short, Google sees web pages with many backlinks pointing to them as authority sources.

When Johnston’s campaign generated hundreds of identical backlinks, Google’s algorithm connected Bush’s biography page to the “miserable failure” search term, and the page soared to the number one spot.

How the Bush Administration Responded

group of people conducting a meeting

The response from the Bush Administration came in 2006 when they redirected the Bush biography page to a more general page discussing all United States presidents.

This wasn’t the worst idea ever, but it meant that all backlinks to Bush’s official biography, including the valid ones from educational websites, no longer brought users to the information they needed.

This is a challenging problem to solve, and Google didn’t resolve the issue until the following year.

Google’s Response to Bombing Pranks

Google initially shrugged off the Bush bomb thanks to the prank’s seemingly harmless nature.

Then, in 2005, the bomb surged back into the public eye when the biography page began to rank for the word “failure” alone.

To many users, the results showed a blatant political bias from Google, and the company released a statement to explain the effects of bombing pranks to assure users this was not the case.

By 2007, the Google team had had enough and introduced an algorithm to fix the problem.

Now, if you Google “miserable failure,” you won’t find links to presidential biographies but articles like this one explaining the 2003 prank on George Bush and the Google bombing tactic in general.

The Bush bomb saw a slight resurgence in 2013 after the 2012 introduction of Google’s Knowledge Graph. This feature offers useful, factual information based on a user’s search query.

For a time after its launch, the Knowledge Graph showed information about George Bush when users searched “miserable failure.”

This problem has since gone away, but I’ll be interested to see how Google and other search engines handle such manipulations in the future.

So, How Do You Create Great Backlinks?

person in deep thought

While I don’t condone tactics like Google bombing, the Bush prank offers a great illustration of how a backlinking strategy can help boost page rankings.

However, not all backlinks are created equal, and you need high-quality links for consistently high rankings.

The best backlinks come from high-quality websites, not spammy sites or pages with poorly written content. Look for high-authority .edu, .gov, or .org sites with regularly updated content.

Backlinks should also come from sites relevant to the page you want to rank higher. A link to your dental office from a home improvement website won’t do you much good.

The trickiest part of establishing great backlinks is getting high-quality websites to post them. Here are some tips for earning backlinks from other websites:

  • Write high-quality, authoritative content people will want to link to.
  • Write guest blog content for other sites.
  • Create engaging or educational infographics.
  • Promote your content.
  • Offer a free resource.

If you need help establishing an effective backlinking strategy, a professional marketing team can offer more specific guidance.

Conclusion

The New York Times dubbed link bombing pranks “cyber graffiti,” an apt description for using search results to make jokes or political statements. Though very effective, the “miserable failure” campaign inspired algorithmic changes that may make it more difficult to get away with these pranks today.

Rodney Warner

Founder & CEO

Rodney’s two primary responsibilities are business development and marketing strategy. He produces highly effective marketing campaigns for our clients and works tirelessly to bring new opportunities to Connective and our connections. In his off time, he produces music, plays video games, enjoys his family, and eats way too much ice cream!

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