Sometimes the most well thought out practical jokes trigger an uneven brand of justice that falls under the laws of unintended consequences. While not formally codified and ill defined, the law of unintended consequences is very real, as a Google-focused prank pulled by 15-year old Tom Vandetta amply illustrates.
Reading through SEO focused blog entries, Vandetta found an article that explained how to fool Google’s news system by writing fake press releases. Sensing an opportunity to experiment and play a joke on his friends, the self-described “Google fanboy” decided to see what would happen if he submitted a fake Google press release claiming the 15-year old New Jersey student was Google’s youngest employee.
The press release was issued through the free service I-Newswire and contained a number of spelling mistakes. Short and to the point, the release, which appeared to have been sent by a Google spokesperson Sonya Johnson (who’s actually existence is unconfirmed and is assumed to be imaginary), read:
A few hours after posting the fake press release, Vandetta logged into the news search tool Digg after receiving an automated email from MAKEBot (Digg’s Spider), to find his practical joke had become a credible international tech story. Google was even displaying reference to the press release in Google News and at in the news results placed above search results relating to Google employment or hiring. According to his confessional blog posting, “At that moment, I felt my stomach knot up and my heart drop. I knew exactly what happened and knew that I would end up regretting posting that.”
The prank has made Vandetta temporarily famous. His Gmail account received almost 400 emails in the first few hours. Vandetta has since had to open new Gmail and MySpace accounts. His parents are changing their phone number and he is working to re-establish a workable online identity. On the brighter side, he has received a few emails from Google employees assuring him he has not dashed his dreams of one day working for Google, as he thought he might have.
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While the prank was a juvenile as it was creative, Vandetta’s fake press release has exposed a credibility problem for Google and might introduce new costs for search marketing firms that use legitimate press releases as a means of promotion. His experiment exposed the fact the automated system that is Google News does not verify press releases before publishing them as factual news pieces.
Google engineers are almost certainly working overtime to institute stronger spam filters and shore up the credibility of the Google News system, as they have over the years when SEOs have exposed exploitable characteristics of the organic ranking algorithm.
SEOs who use press release submission services should expect to have to submit a lot more identifying information about themselves and their clients. Requiring information such as phone numbers, addresses, contact names and positions that can be verified by electronic spiders are the most likely filtering options being discussed by Google’s tech-team.
Another filter might be the disempowering or “delisting” of free-for-use press release services such as I-Newswire.com. This measure would present a hindrance to smaller companies and SEO firms, most of which use press releases properly. By raising the cost of communication, Google risks pushing many smaller entities away from an important arena. SEOs are rarely happy to present extra costs to their clients, many of which are small businesses using search advertising to even the playing field against much larger competitors.
Whatever the outcome, Google has to move to close gaps in its News aggregation system quickly.