BOB GARFIELD: Googlers, beware. The web's most popular search engine is rapidly becoming the newest front in the battle for the White House. Type the word "waffles" into the search box and number one on the list of results won't be a recipe for grandma's finest, but, rather, the campaign site for John Kerry. The Democratic hopeful has been "google-bombed." Earlier this year, searches for the term "miserable failure" started returning bios of George W. Bush. Harmless prank? Maybe. Google-bombs are certainly not going to affect the outcome of the election. But New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki wrote last week that google-bombing, quote, "exemplifies one of the biggest challenges that Google faces as it heads towards its multi-billion dollar IPO." James Surowiecki joins me now. James, welcome back to the show.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Thanks for having me on, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: What is it about Google that lets these dirty tricks get played?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, the, the way Google decides which pages come up first when you do a search -- it uses a variety of mechanisms, but at the core of it, what it does is it asks web pages and web page producers, essentially, to vote on which pages will be most relevant, and it does that essentially by treating a link from one page to another as a vote. Obviously, "miserable failure" does not appear on the page that has George Bush's biography at the White House website. But if you link to the biography, using the phrase "miserable failure," Google essentially tracks that. And so what people realized was they could essentially fool Google into thinking that that was the page that had the best information for "miserable failure."
BOB GARFIELD: Now, subverting the system isn't just a game for tricksters. Businesses have a great stake in what comes up first under web searches. How do they go about seeding the clouds to get clicked on first?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, there's an entire industry which goes by the name generally of "search engine optimization," and they use a variety of tactics. Some of them are, are what are called "white hat tactics." Google also looks, for example, at where words are on a page, how close words are to each other on a page, font size, and a lot of what optimizers do is try to optimize these, so if you are, you know, I don't know -- offering real estate in Charlotte, North Carolina, your page will show up high on the rankings. And, and that seems totally reasonable. But there are also "black hat tactics." Coders are able to write pages that fool Google into thinking it's saying one thing, but then when you click on it, it shows you something entirely different.
BOB GARFIELD: It sounds, at least at first blush, like a bug in the Google algorithm, but really it's just opportunists exploiting the very essence of what makes Google such a good search engine to begin with, right, because it credits the wisdom of the masses. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Yeah. Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: This, conveniently enough, gets to your larger theory on the wisdom of crowds, as fleshed out in your new book. Tell me about the premise of your book.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, the simple premise is that under the right circumstances, groups are often smarter than, than even the smartest person within them, and I argue that this phenomenon can be seen over and over again. You can see it at the racetrack, where racing odds basically predict how likely it is that horses will win. You can see it in the Stock Market, and you can see it in quite mundane examples, like if you ask a group how many jelly beans are in a jar, the average guess will invariably be within about 2 percent of the total, and it will be better than, you know, 96 or 97 percent of the people in the group.
BOB GARFIELD: When the people in-- on Wall Street discuss this phenomenon, they say that the "tape knows." The aggregate of all the information by all the people buying and selling is greater than that of the greatest experts on the market. And I guess that's true, but there's a difference between a crowd and a mob.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: The bubbles and the crashes in the Stock Market are the work of a mob. Out of control lynchings are the work of a mob. And I guess google-bombing is the work of a mob.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, the google-bombers are like a mob in this sense: what distinguishes a crowd or a group from a mob is that mobs are sort of single-minded, and that instead of people thinking for themselves, they're all moving in the same direction. And, in a sense, that's exactly what google-bombers are doing --they're all acting in, in collective, in order to achieve what the group wants. They're not doing it as a result of independent judgments. And that's the real paradox, I think, and, and the real challenge Google faces. Google, in a sense, works best when no one's really paying attention to it, and I sort of have this image that what Google really would like, and I think in a strange way, what would be best for all of us, is if, you know, they could just kind of hide in the corner and look at us making our decisions about what web pages are most valuable. That's really how Google built the better mouse trap that made it the success that it is.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, James, as always, thank you very much.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: James Surowiecki writes the Financial Page column for the New Yorker magazine. He's author of the new book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how some political operatives are made and how some, like Karl Rove, are born. And why campaign reporters won't call a spade a spade.