As some Google Maps users discovered this week, typing certain racist search terms into the popular online mapping service will return one of the world's most recognizable addresses: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This probably wasn’t a programmer’s racist Easter egg, nor was it a hacker breaching security. More likely, it was a form of algorithmic sabotage called a “Google Bomb.”
Google Maps users took to Twitter and other social media this week to express their reactions to the discovery that when variations on a word used to attack African Americans are typed into Google Maps' search box, the results were a view of the White House.
According to published reports Google has issued a public apology for the bug.
"It’s not a traditional hack in the sense that it’s from inside Google, or that somebody has penetrated the security of Google it’s that people are sort of manipulating the natural behavior of these machine learning and search indexing algorithms,” says Princeton University’s Computer Department Chair, Andrew Appel in an interview.
“It’s people outside Google manipulating the search as a prank, or for political purposes,” says Dr. Appel, an expert in computer security and privacy. “The term for this practice of exploiting the algorithm's vulnerability is, 'Google Bomb'”
It would appear that somebody swayed the algorithm by influencing the volume of words and web links it was fed from the outside.
“The way Google works is that it uses machine learning and indexing algorithms to gather words and phrases from all the websites in the world so that when you search for those words or phrases it can show you all the websites that contain them,” Appel says.
Once common way for a standard Google search – not specifically a maps inquiry – to be swayed is for a specific Web page to be targeted to rank in the top spot in the search engine results pages for a particular phrase, so that when that phrase is typed in Google it brings the desired results.
To make that happen, a very dedicated person or group of people need to build a vast quantity of links that point to the desired page and its anchor text so that the target website will rank number one on Google.
“The nature of those algorithms is that if enough people out there deliberately put two different words or phrases next to each other the algorithms will think that lots of people advocate those things,” Appel says.
“I know that Google adjusts its algorithms to try and prevent that [Google Bombing] and giving people free advertising they don’t deserve,” he says. “I’m sure Google adjusts but it’s hard to do a perfect job. It wouldn’t surprise me if when they become aware of specific Google Bombs they try to disable them.”
Appel points to a previous case of political Google Bombing in 2007, when people were linking the words “miserable failure” to George W. Bush.
Here are a few other famous Google Bombs: Typing in ‘completely wrong’ as a Google Image search and getting images of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a result and in 2005 Bill O’Reilly’s website began ranking in 1st position on Google for the phrase “terrorist sympathizer.”
One humorous result was when users typed in ‘find chuck norris’ and then hit the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button, they would be taken to Arran Schlosberg’s site NoChuckNorris.com which looked like a Google results page, but displayed the false error message, “Google won’t search for Chuck Norris because it knows you don’t find Chuck Norris, he finds you.”