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Crusaders Google Bomb Scientology

An apparent Google bomb aimed at the Church of Scientology is just part of an all-out ideological (holy?) war perpetrated by a group called “Anonymous.” The rest of the digital war has been carried out via social media as a highly organized and carefully orchestrated Internet campaign that’s getting the group a lot of attention.

It’s learning good lessons from questionable examples, but the Anonymous campaign has a lot to teach us about online campaigns. (Just to be clear, though, not everything highlighted in this article is condoned.)

Yesterday, it came to light that searches for the terms “dangerous cult” brought back the Scientology homepage as the top result in Google – and it apparently took about a week to do that.

The occurrence was interesting because just a year ago, Google announced they’d taken measures that would eliminate the practice. Those measures included not allowing the anchor text in a mass of links to influence ranking if those words did not appear on the targeted homepage. Thus, John Kerry’s website no longer ranked number one for “waffle” and George W. Bush no longer ranked number one for “miserable failure.”

However, the word failure did eventually appear on his website, which served to relight the fuse for the word “failure,” at least for a time. Wikipedia has replaced it since, and so has a site that shall not be named and should not (EVER) be visited. (This is like the big red nuke button. Just trust me when I say that the second result for “failure” should not be clicked.)

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, unsure if it was a true Google bomb, investigated links pointing toward the Scientology homepage, their anchor texts, as well as the keywords on the targeted page. Under Google’s explanation, the Google bomb should only work if the targeted words are actually on the page. Sullivan discovered the word “dangerous,” but not “cult.”

The only use of the word “cult” came from links pointing to the Scientology website.

Then something very interesting happened. In the comments at SEL, a reader points to what appears to be a wiki from Anonymous about how to conduct an all-out media blitz. The master plan includes a Google bomb targeting “dangerous cult,” but also ” brainwashing cult” and whatever keyword supporters wanted to match with “cult.” They also wished to replace Scientology.org with Xenu.net, a site aimed at debunking the religion, as the number one result for the keyword “scientology.”

Anonymous didn’t achieve the number one ranking they wanted for “brainwashing cult” or for “scientology” …but they did take them up to the third result. Not bad for a brand new effort.

Ideologies, agendas, and holy wars aside, Anonymous launched one heckuva successful campaign. If you look closer at the wiki, members are instructed not to spam. Naturally, spammy tactics are targeted by search engines and everybody else – plus, content matters. But they are instructed to set up blogs, to utilize email, press releases and press release sites, Digg.com, YouTube, and other social networking sites, as well as comments in comment sections (which sort of walk the line on comment spam).

(Spam is encouraged, however, as a weapon, as are denial of service attacks, which seem to be working – as of 3:00 PM today – to shut down the Church of Scientology’s website.)

Part of the reason for the quick success could be that recently Google seems to have placed more weight on buzzy, timely resources, which comes from news sites, social bookmarking, and often social networks and blogs. Google definitely weights Wikipedia, Digg and YouTube pretty heavily.

So what we have here, in a controversial example, is a lesson in buzz creation and SEO. This campaign was highly targeted and highly specific. From the SEO standpoint we can confirm:

Links are crazy important for higher rankings
Anchor text matters
Content matters
Keyword density matters
Link authority matters
Timeliness matters
Generating buzz via social media matters

It also means that a tightly integrated, holistic campaign can make an impact, as utilization of collective media produce a mass effect the search engines (in their current configuration) can’t ignore.

Likely, Google will do something about it. Matt Cutts is a bit busy giving tips about Gmail and WordPress right now, though. Until then, we have some valuable insight on how to get more attention online (without waging a holy war).

About the Author:
Jason Lee Miller is a WebProNews editor and writer covering business and technology.

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