Fact Check

Miserable Failure

Why is the phrase 'miserable failure' tied to President Bush's biography in Google?

Published Dec. 9, 2003


Claim:   A 'Google bombing' effort has tied the phrase 'miserable failure' to President Bush's biography in the Google search engine.

Status:   No longer true.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2003]

If you go to Google.com and type in the phrase "miserable failure" without the quotes, then hit the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, it brings up the website of President Bush! Don't know what category this goes in, but it's true! HAHA!

Origins:   A popular maxim tells us that "anything man can do, man can undo." A corollary to that concept might be "anything man can do, others can exploit for fun and profit."

Ever since search engines first appeared on the World Wide Web, netizens have been finding ways to tie searches on particular words or phrases to web sites of their choosing, generally out of a profit motive. (Better results bring more traffic to a site, increasing advertising revenue and/or sales.) Search engine companies, meanwhile, have been busily at work fine-tuning their algorithms to eliminate rank-enhancing tricks and ensure their results more accurately reflect the relevance and popularity of indexed web sites.

The "fun" factor has come into play, too, as some people have manipulated search engine results either for the sheer humor of it or to make


political statements — for example, a spoof 404 page (i.e., a "page not found" error page) was the top-ranked page in Google when users searched on the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." And since early December 2003, the top site returned by a Google search on the phrase "miserable failure" was the biography of President George W. Bush from the White House web site.

How did this come about, especially since the phrase "miserable failure" appears nowhere in the President's biography? It was the result of a "Google bombing" project organized by George Johnston back at the end of October 2003, in which he used his blog to urge others to include links connecting the phrase "miserable failure" (a term used prominently by Democratic hopeful Dick Gephardt) with the President's biography in their own web sites and blogs:

Let's get everyone to link to https://www.whitehouse.gov/president/gwbbio.html with the words "Miserable Failure." Our goal is to make Shrubya the top google pick.

It's fun, it's easy just <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/president/gwbbio.html">Miserable Failure</a> in your favorite web page will look like Miserable Failure

According to Mr. Johnston's progress report, by the last week of November 2003 the Bush biography was the #2 result on Google for "miserable failure," and — after more and more netizens implemented the same link on their sites and urged others to do the same — it reached the top spot soon afterward. (A #1 ranking at Google brings the added bonus of returning the targeted site when users select the search engine's "I'm Feeling Lucky" button.)

According to the New York Times, Google intially didn't take umbrage at the prank, nor did they take steps to counteract it:

Craig Silverstein, Google's director for technology, says the company sees nothing wrong with the public using its search engine this way. No user is hurt, he said, because there is no clearly legitimate site for "miserable failure" being pushed aside.

Moreover, he said, Google's results were taking stock of the range of opinions that are expressed online. "We just reflect the opinion on the Web,'' he said, "for better or worse."

However, in early 2007 Google changed their indexing structure so that "Google-bombing" efforts would produce highly-placed search results pointing not to the bombings' intended targets, but to "commentary, discussions, and articles" about the Google-bombing phenomenon itself. Thus the first result returned by a Google search on "miserable failure" now links to a BBC article about efforts to tie President Bush's name to the phrase.

Last updated:   13 August 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Hansell, Saul.   "Foes of Bush Enlist Google to Make Point."

    The New York Times.   8 December 2003   (p. C8).

    Cohen, Noam.   "Google Halts 'Miserable Failure' Link to President Bush."

    The New York Times.   29 January 2007   (p. C6).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.