Thursday, October 26, 2006

Googleblogging - a debate

I respect both the pro and con points of view on googleblogging as promoted by Maryland bloggers have discussed the issue on several local blogs, and opinions vary (and in good faith, I believe.) Below is my essay on my attempt to discuss the ethics of the practice over at Disclosure: at least for now, I am an authorized poster on's Breaking Blue board.

Me: "I question the ethics of this practice (googlebombing), though perhaps there is a good ethical defense to it.  I would welcome comment from one and all re: same."

Chris Bowers: "Every smart campaign engages in search engine optimization. It is becoming standard pactice. If you don't have the guts to do something this minor in a campaign, then I'm not sure if politics is for you."



Since Mr. Bowers made clear his RedState-esque intolerance for a discussion of the ethics of googlebombing on his article at on, well, googlebombing, I thought I would bring the discussion here.  I don't think it's unethical to do so here, since has availed itself of this forum deliberately to promote googlebombing, and since there is no privacy issue involving open posts and comments on either forum.

I am not a professional ethicist, though as an attorney I have to follow several different (and inconsistent) codes of ethics in the different jurisdictions in which I practice.  I don't claim to have an answer to the issues involved.

Criminal law has classically divided crimes into two categories, malum in se, "evil in itself" or acts which all people at all times would find evil, and malum prohibitum, "prohibited evil" or acts which are not necessarily evil at all times but get prohibited for good practical reasons in specific situations.  Murder, rape and theft would be examples of malum in se, whereas speeding or driving without a license would be malum prohibitum.  It is not immoral to drive at 100 mph per se; NASCAR drivers do it all the time, many drivers in rural Montana can do it during daylight with good visibility, but it should be probably illegal to do so in downtown Baltimore at 2PM on a Monday.  To me, googlebombing is not "evil in itself" but may be unethical in practice (or it may be perfectly fine, I have questions, not answers.)

The issue is "search engine optimization." The phrase means little in itself; translated into plain English, it means getting Google to spit out to a Google searcher your desired data (not necessarily Google's desired data, not necessarily the searcher's desired data).  Google does not approve of the practice of "googlebombing" but elects not to make efforts to defeat the practice. As for searchers, it depends on what they are really looking for.

An ethical case can perhaps be constructed for googlebombing, on the grounds that people searching for general information on candidate X could be fairly assumed to want to read an article from a third-party that discusses X presumably in good faith.  To the extent that the linked material is not an astroturf hit piece but good faith news, this may well be ethical.  On the other hand, Google itself objects to the practice, and its brand is damaged by the deliberate degradation of its search service and attendant trade and service marks.  I consider junk mail sent in pseudo-government envelopes unethical (a practice of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee from what I heard on NPR), and intuitively, putting "my content" into the search engine "envelope" of a Google search strikes me as at least questionable unless it is a good faith response to a searcher's inquiry for somewhat similar reasons.

"Search engine optimization" is like "wealth optimization"; there are ethical and unethical ways to do each.  There may be perfectly ethical ways to build a "search engine optimization" strategy but merely parroting the phrase is not one of them.  More troubling in Bowers' remarks is his virtual admission that practice is not proper.  His justification is not to cite factors justifying the legitimacy of googlebombing but rather to admit that it's a "minor" violation, and as punishment for raising an ethical issue to assault my character as lacking "guts."  I don't know that I am defective in the "guts" regard but even if I were, it actually takes more "guts" to tell a respected community leader - Bowers - to his face on his site that he might be wrong, than to go along with the hive/flow without thinking or daring to challenge (respectfully) the majority view.

It is the morality of an 11 year-old who taunts a fellow neighborhood boy into stealing eggs from his neighbor's chicken coops or candy bars from the 7-11, calling him a wimp, a chicken or a pussy for his reluctance to do so.  It has nothing to do with ethics or proper conduct or fair play.  It is the morality that Jean Schmidt showed to Jack Murtha, calling him a coward for wanting to end a destructive war.  Personally, I passed the 5th grade 26 years ago and aim higher than the Jean Schmidt level of politics and ethics (though I have plenty of my bad days too).

Jack Abramoff did not decide one day after morning prayers to become a lobbying racketeer, con artist and fraud.  He made a thousand decisions, one at a time.  Ken Lay didn't decide in one day to become a bilker of billions, but that is what he was convicted of being.  Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, Dennis Kozlowski, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Randy Cunningham, Mark Foley, Bob Ney, even Tom DeLay, none of these men probably got up one day and said, I will become a  political, financial or sexual predator.  They made a thousand decisions, in order.  What separates an honest man from a man like Jack Abramoff?  Nothing, except decision-making.

There may be excellent defenses to googlebombing.  It may even be a positive good, not just something neutral or tolerable or acceptable.  It may be unjustified on "attack" but quite acceptable as a remedy against other dirty pool.  The argument "everybody does it" is a political argument, not generally an ethical one; pine tar cheating in baseball is common (even, possibly, at the World Series level) and so is steroid use in many sports, but those practices are not ethical.  But self-defense may be a justifying ground for the practice.  The consequences down the line should be considered; if googlebombing is a perfectly fine way to manipulate content delivery, Congressmen (including the Democratic majority I hope we achieve!) may ask next spring why net neutrality is so damn sacred, since everybody is playing hardball anyway.  While I don't think that political googlebombing could lead to internet regulation (or that such regulation would pass judicial review), some unintended blowback may occur somewhere, and a reasonably thoughtful person should consider that before making a final judgment.

I would be grateful to meaningful links to articles on googlebombing pro and con, as well as arguments pro and con of your own origination.  I question the practice but have not made up my mind; my mind is open, I have not shut it out of retaliation against Mr. Bowers' comments.  If persuaded, I may be a big fan of googlebombing.  If convinced that it's the right thing to do, I will add googlebombing to my own site.  I would like to have the discussion here that I had hoped to start in good faith over at  

As for Mr. Bowers, I don't think that either he or I should leave politics, as we both and we all have something useful to contribute.  Thank you for considering my point of view, and in advance for your responses.

To me, this episode is evidence of why none of us should raise either ourselves or each other as icons or leaders, but should look to ourselves as leaders and demand high standards of ourselves. Frankly, my opinion of Mr. Bowers has dropped significantly, not because of the googlebombing, but because of his belief that those who intend to hold political practices to ethical standards of any sort should simply leave politics. On that path lie many of the civic evils of our modern republic.


Blogger andy k in MD said...

Bruce, though I did participate in googlebombing Mike Steele, I respect your position on this issue.

I only googlebombed Steele and no other candidate because I generally blog about Maryland politics, and I would likely have linked to the googlebombed story before the 7th anyway.

However, when it comes to Bowers, I am very disappointed in his dismissal of your well written arguments. You are entitled to your position and this issue does deserve more debate. I will be taking Mr. Bower's writing with a large grain of sodium from this point on.

10/26/2006 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew Jerome said...

Agreed. I had a similar reaction to Bowers' post about how the Dems should govern vindicatively if they win majorities, just as the Republicans did. As far as governing is concerned, my feeling is that we are not Republicans for a reason, and frankly we ought to be above them. The fact that he doesn't want to have this debate sorta smells of partisan hack to me.

However, I do think that this, while not being "ethical" exactly, is morally acceptable SO LONG AS the stories being linked to are truthful.

Let's say I'm your average 19-year old volunteer for O'Malley's campaign. I'd knock on doors for him, phone bank for him, stuff envelopes, etc. And of course, the information I'm transmitting would be favorable to O'Malley, and unfavorable, sometimes harshly so, to Ehrlich.

Now, is it unethical that I'm not promoting good things about Ehrlich, or bad things about O'Malley? No. Since I want my guy to win, I'm using all the resources at my disposal to help get MY INFORMATION across. If the information is true, then I have no obligation to present the other side, nor would my opponent.

Likewise with Google-bombing. This is an attempt for people to use resources at their disposal to present their side of the story. Now, like I said, if it becomes links to smear articles or blatant falsehoods, that's another thing.

Ultimately, though, my problem with it isn't that it is unethical, so much as I find it sorta silly. I'm not persuaded that it will actually affect voters tremendously, and besides, generally people who are going on the internet to research candidates ain't the undecided voters--they are the partisans who have their minds made up more or less.

10/26/2006 04:58:00 PM  
Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

I guess I don't see where in particular gets off objecting to the practice -- it's always been inherent in their whole search engine method in the first place as far as I can tell. They're the ones who need to think through whether and how to downweight "googlebombing" episodes like this one -- 99.9% of the time it's that benefits materially from the voluntary, individually authored interlinkages on the Internet. In that sense, bloggers are always "googlebombing": they draw attention, often in flocks, to the stories they care about. This doesn't seem much different except that it's a concentrated, lack-of-commentary version of the same thing.

So I guess I agree with Bowers that meanwhile, this is a lever we can push on the machinery available to us. I agree with you that it was rude to cut off discussion like that.

That said, while I don't see ethical problems in doing this, I do see strategic ones: it invites an "arms race" bloggers like us and activists like Bowers could easily be outgunned on. I'm thinking of astroturf or cookie-cutter "blog" and other sites limited only by the amount of servers and programmers some deep-pockets outfit assigns to the task. It would be the difference between a normal demonstration and one where everyone holding a sign was paid to be there. As they say, on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog -- or a computer algorithm, for that matter. I'd be far more concerned about that than about googlebombing of the sort we're discussing, which is at least really people exercising free speech . It's true that this is more like chanting in unison than it is reasoned arguments at 20 paces, but it's still real people, and it's still free speech.

10/27/2006 10:49:00 AM  

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