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Google Trends Gets Subverted for the Third Time

A crude illustration of a plane crushing into the Twin Towers appeared near the top of the list of the top Google queries yesterday afternoon after a morally dubious attack was perpetrated by the users of 4chan.org, a notorious Internet forum.

The symbol of an airplane pointing towards two blocks represending the Twin Towers appeared in yesterday’s list of the most rapidly rising search terms and reached the no. 2 slot in the daily ranking of Google Trends, the interface that tracks the hottest keywords being searched through the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine.

Its sudden rise was the work of so-called trolls, or pranksters who deliberately act to offend other users, and highlights how simply the Google Trends databases can be disrupted to this date. The idea started from the infamous forum 4chan.org, where users were encouraged to perform repeated searches for the computer code that generates the aircraft and towers simbol.

The campaign was soon picked up in other forums, and by yesterday afternoon the icon reached the second position on Google Trends, with such a sudden surge in frequency that the trend was classified as “Volcanic”, its highest possible search popularity. The symbol dropped in the ranking later in the day, before being manually removed by the Google team.

This is not the first time that trolls have exploited the small number of searches required to make a term appear on Google Trends. Last July a swastika symbol appeared in the rankings after a similar stunt, and a week later the 4chan.org forum promoted yet another query that was offensive to Google.

Search experts said the repeated incidents are something of embarrassment for the world’s No. 1 search engine. After last summer’s incidents, Google should have done more to detect this type of stunts, and the algorithms that try to limit these exploits should have noticed that the query was not an actual word and, therefore, more likely to be a prank of some sort.

Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesman, told the New York Times that Hot Trends is automatically generated by algorithms and machines that are there to detect hot or breaking queries. “We saw lots of queries from a number of different places in a short period of time” for the said search term, he added, and this might have contributed to make it harder for Google’s algorithms to successfully detect the prank in a timely fashion.

Sticker declined to say whether the prank appeared to have been generated by bots or actual individuals, although the latter would seem more likely at this point — exploits from bots are generally easy to detect and prevent.

Another common form of tricking the Google search engine, dubbed “Google bombing”, involves tricking the Google algorithm into featuring a given page up in the search rankings by linking them and using a specific anchor text. For instance, people typing “miserable failure” into Google in 2003 were directed to George W Bush’s biography on the White House website.

Tricking the main Google search engine is harder than fooling Trends, as it compiles results based on the popularity of web pages rather than the relative number of terms being searched, and also because the Google search team has gradually learned how to successfully face these “bombing” mechanisms. One of such remedies being the infamous “Google sandbox” in which sites that get a great number of incoming links in a short period of time are seemingly put. So far, however, it would seem that the filtering mechanisms for tools like Google Trends are not quite as sophisticated and still in need of further refinement.

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