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The war on the web

Anthony Cox describes how his spoof error page turned into a ‘Google bomb’ for weapons of mass destruction

Thursday July 10, 2003 The Guardian

I had always wondered how those viral emails or amusing web page addresses forwarded to me built up such momentum. Little did I know that I would be responsible for one of the most successful internet memes this year, and be accused of developing a so-called “Google bomb” of mass destruction.

In early February, I was reading online a Guardian article about Hans Blix’s problems obtaining cooperation in Iraq. Immediately after, I was confronted with the ubiquitous 404 error page, which usually tells the reader that a website is unavailable. With this serendipitous inspiration in mind, along with a text editor and some fiddling in a graphics package, I created a spoof 404 “weapons of mass destruction” error page . Saddam would have been proud; the page was deployed and operational well within 45 minutes.

After favourable comments from friends, I posted it in the newsgroup uk.rec.humour. Within the next 24 hours, the website had had 150,000 hits and had propagated to 118 newsgroups. By the end of February, it had received more than one million page impressions. Perhaps the ultimate accolade was having the original email come back to me with a note saying: “Have you seen this?” Visits declined throughout the subsequent war, and I suspected its 15MB of fame had passed.

Yet, suddenly, in the first four days of July I received nearly 4m page impressions, more than the previous five months combined. The reason? Typing “weapons of mass destruction” in Google and hitting the “I’m feeling lucky” button did not bring up Number 10’s “dodgy dossier”, but my spoof site. Suddenly, it was a lot funnier and accessible: even Google couldn’t find the WMD.

The first Google bomb was created by Adam Mathes in 2001 . He exploited Google’s page ranking system to return a friend’s website when the words “talentless hack” were used as a search term. He used a multitude of pages linking to his friend’s site, with the specific term “talentless hack”. Even though his friend’s site did not contain the search term itself, after calling upon others to insert such links into their sites, the Google bomb found its target.

Google’s page ranking treats links as votes for a website, and both the number and the importance of the link helps increase the ranking of a site. My site had steadily increased its ranking, including a link from the Channel 4 news website and the Guardian, but perhaps the majority were from personal pages, discussion boards and blogs.

However, this was not a deliberate attempt to use Google to make a political point. This Google bomb was slowly and unknowingly built, and only by chance coincided with the accusations that intelligence documents had been “sexed up”.

Last Friday, bloggers really picked up on it and it was the highest linked to page in weblogs according to . On Monday, however, a search for “weapons of mass destruction” sent you to a White House strategy document, which might be seen as a step forward for Google users and perhaps the White House.

Then on Tuesday my page was back at the top, so it may have been a glitch at Google, rather than a deliberate decision to drop the site.

This is a problem for Google: weblogs have been accused of causing “noise” in their searches. Instead of providing good original source material, reams of musings from bloggers are returned. The success of my WMD page underlines a problem Google needs to address. Sure it’s funny, but if you wanted documents on WMD, is that what you really expect from a search engine?

I have received about 200 emails from such diverse sources as United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and serving soldiers in the Gulf. Even those critical of the perceived anti-war message thought it was funny. One of the more offensive messages called me a cowardly little boy and stated: “I am grateful to the almighty that not all Englishmen are slithering bottom-feeders.”

Ironically, I was not against the war, my views on the war being similar to those of journalist David Aaronovitch and MP Ann Clwyd. But if you are going to make a topical joke, then Bush is an obvious and easy target.

·Anthony Cox is a pharmacist at the West Midlands Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Centre and a teaching fellow at Aston University. He also writes a blog on drug safety at