Lazy guide to net culture: Googlewashing

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Fads and catchphrases spread through the Net faster than a hoax virus warning through an office.

This week’s fad: The Googlewash Kerfuffle

Many internet users are very protective of their medium. They get very upset when people interfere with it. They object to it being manipulated for financial or political aims.

That is why spammers are so universally despised. They have taken the wonder of internet communication and turned it into a junk mail plague.

At the other extreme, many internet users adore Google. It has become the world's biggest search engine purely on the basis of being a good product, without recourse to expensive marketing campaigns.

This mixture of passion and protectiveness has led to a bit of a flap over allegations that searched results on Google were being fixed.

The claim was that people had worked out how to fool the search engine's ranking system into putting some webpages above others in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.

The term "Googlewashing" was coined to describe the practice. (This should not be confused with the more innocent "Googlewhacking").

The first widely noticed example of this was identified by the popular technology magazine The Register. It claimed that the spread of the expression "the second superpower" to describe the anti-war protests had been impeded by Googlewashing. The article claimed that a blog featuring a "neutered" definition of "the second superpower" had appeared and hogged the first 30 results on the search engine.

Much excitement ensues, including a long and involved discussion on Many (including this blog) were concerned at this apparently sinister manipulation of the net.

However, many other people (here and here) were puzzled as to what all the fuss was about. Surely if a search engine was picking up a new phrase, it was simply doing its job.

The debate rages on.

A Google search on the word "Googlewashing" reveals the extent of the scepticism, as well as a lot of useless links to empty discussions. But could these results themselves be being Googlewashed?

That's the beauty of the Internet - you can never be sure. But you can speculate endlessly.

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