Oct. 26, 2006 -- For all of Google's power and popularity, here's an unexpected question:
Could Google tell people how to vote in the upcoming election?
"Google could theoretically impact an election," said David Berkowitz, at the search engine marketing firm 360i. "Presumably, Google could have a role in who controls Congress."
Here's how. A liberal activist with the group blog "MyDD.com" is directing his followers to "Google Bomb" 50 Republican candidates in the hopes of swaying votes. For example, if a voter is interested in finding out more information about Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican, the first thing to come up on a search of his name, according to this strategy, would be an article with the headline "Congressman cited with gun at airport."
The article reports "Hostettler was issued a citation by airport police for carrying a concealed deadly weapon and then was released." Likewise, if the Google bomb strategy works, a search for Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., will turn up a story headlined "FBI Raids Homes of Weldon Child, Friend."
The stories are actual newspaper accounts. The strategy, though, is to manipulate Google so that such unsavory articles are the very first result to pop up during an Internet search of the candidate.
Liberal blogger Chris Bowers has compiled links to such stories for about 50 Republican candidates and detailed instructions for other bloggers to include the links in their Web sites.
The idea is to hit the links so often that they change Google's rankings by flooding the Web with these specific references to each candidate. Bowers refused to talk to ABC News about this, saying in an e-mail that he feared the story would be used to help conservatives.
On his Web site Bowers writes, "If you have a blog, please take this action. It will exponentially increase the effectiveness of this campaign. And make sure you keep using the same link whenever you talk about that person on your blog, in the comments, or anywhere else."
The idea isn't new, according to 360i's Berkowitz. He said that during the 2004 election, a similar approach was used to link searches for simple phrases or words like "waffle" to Democratic Sen. John Kerry, and "miserable failure" to President Bush.
"But those results don't have a lot of competition," said Berkowitz, who believes the specifics of today's Google bomb campaign make it much more difficult. "I'm very skeptical in terms of how all this will work. Maybe for a handful of politicians it will, but for the majority, I think it will be a long shot."
If it works at all, the campaign's biggest effect may be on lesser-known candidates who turn up fewer hits during searches. Google officials said they don't condone the practice and believe the company's system is too sophisticated to be effectively gamed in this way.
So what's a Republican to do? Well, consider this posting on "Rightwingnews.com" by John Hawkins: "Well, in my opinion, we should simply fight fire with fire. That's why I put together a list of key races for Republican blogs to Google bomb."
And so it goes. Both sides agree it's too soon to say if any of this is actually having an impact. But one thing is certain -- this is only the beginning of a new strategy following in the well-worn footsteps of TV political ads.