Influencing an Election with Crowdsourcing

An article in the New York Times highlighted an interesting new political tactic: campaign resources are being used to promote certain newspaper articles online, such that they appeared at the top of a Google search for a candidate's name.

This makes for a powerful propaganda tool. For example, a Democrat could promote a negative article on her Republican challenger, such that it appeared #1 in Google for that person's name. Anyone searching for info on that Republican would get an eyeful of criticism, giving them something new to think about. The fact that a newspaper article (a supposedly objective source) is used as the target makes its impact even more compelling.

This is a great example of crowdsourcing - not just because many people were involved, but because many people's websites were being used for a focused task.

Miserable Failure

You might recall the story a couple years back, where Bush's White House profile became the #1 result for the search "miserable failure." (Yes - it's still there.) This is an example of Google bombing: a mischievous version of a marketing practice called search engine optimization (SEO).

SEO is a technique used by companies to get more visibility in search engine listings. One interesting aspect of SEO has to do with links between websites.

Search engines add-up links from other websites as a form of reputation scoring: CNN.com has a "better" score than NPR.org - not because it has better news, but because more websites link to CNN articles than NPR articles. Link scoring is Google's search sauce, and it's become standard practice for all search engines.

Link scoring is crowdsourcing at its best, because the crowd (the universe of websites) is largely unaware that their actions are being analyzed and used to serve some secondary purpose.

Gaming the System

Google bombing (and SEO in general) introduces a new twist: the idea that this "crowd" can be contacted, requested to link to a specific website in a specific way, and create an intentional outcome.

All of this brought to mind a discussion I recently had with one of the Amazon reps working with Mechanical Turk. They have a provision in their terms of service that prevents companies from using their workforce for promotional work. So you can't hire an army of Turk workers to build links from other websites.

I thought this seemed unduly restrictive, because I'm a search engine marketer and saw Turk's potential as a useful tool in my work. The rep explained that Amazon was trying to avoid having someone come-in and use their workforce as part of some "gaming" effort.

Given the New York Times article, I'm inclined to agree with the wisdom of that logic... if somewhat reluctantly :)

No comments: