Jon Garfunkel takes a close look at recent efforts by friends of detained Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fateh – including by Global Voices editors – to call attention to Alaa’s situation through use of a “googlebomb”. Jon is – justifiably – skeptical about the viability of the technique and investigates an alternative – paying for keyword ads of Google for activist purposes.
Because Jon is at least as prolix as I am, let me offer a quick summary of the first four parts of his six part article:
– Alaa Abd El Fateh, Egyptian blogger and activist, was arrested for participating in a public protest in Cairo on May 7th. Bloggers around the world reacted to his arrest with posts, badges, a wikipedia article, flash animations, and a googlebombing campaign, all of which are documented in an excellent article on Mark Glaser’s blog.
– Googlebombing is a technique where many bloggers link a word or phrase to a webpage, attempting to gain the top link on Google’s search results page for that search term. Search Google for “Arabian Gulf” for an example of a successful Googlebomb… or for “miserable failure”. (BBC has an article on the “miserable failure” hack, and Wikipedia has a comprehensive article on the technique.
Googlebombs can work when they try to link uncommon words or phrases to a site – they’re much harder to implement when linking to a common word. The googlebomb proposed for Alaa – linking the word “Egypt” to the Free Alaa blog – has an uphill battle, as “Egypt” is a pretty common term found in webpage anchor text.
– Jon speculates that buying Google AdWords might be a better way to advertise Alaa’s cause, and purchases ads on the keyword “Egypt”, as well as ads to call attention to his friend Dr. Yang Jingli, a Tienanmen Square activist currently detained in China. He discovers that these ads can cost a good chunk of change… especially if you want your ad to appear high up on the search page. In a sense, he encounters the same problem the Googlebombers do – choosing too common a term makes it very hard to control it within Google’s universe. But Jon is more successful in the sense that his actions immediately get his message onto Google’s results page, while the Googlebomb might take weeks or longer to work.
I’m grateful that Jon’s put such time into thinking through the issues surrounding these online activist techniques. There’s a strong tendency in the world of activism to act quickly, with little reflection on whether techniques are effective – it’s easy to argue that any effort is laudable, since lots of small actions might create large-scale changes. On the other hand, it’s easy for people to get discouraged when the actions they take don’t have the anticipated effect, which argues for the development of as sharp, refined activist tools as possible… which requires a close look at the success or failure of these different tools.