There's an interesting article over at the weblog of Tom Hoffman, an educator, (from my brief look at his site) entitled OK, Let’s Knock martinlutherkingdotorg Down a Few Pegs, Shall We?. For those unaware of this site, the Martin Luther King .org site currently comes up second in the Google search for his name (both with and without quotes). The summary is 'The truth about Martin Luther King: Includes historical trivia, articles ... valuable resource for teachers and students alike'. It turns out that when you spend any time looking at the site you realise that it's been put together by a white power/rascist/nasty organisation.
The problem is that because lots of people link to it, with a fair number doing so directly because they want to make the point that it's either a) a rascist site or b) to demonstrate that you can't trust the internet or b) to evaluate resources these links are actually pushing it up much further in the rankings. Certainly since I've been watching the site, which is now over a couple of years it's gone from #6 in Google to #2 on average. In Yahoo the first reference I found to it as at #36. Over at Live.com it's #1. Over at Ask I didn't see it in the top 60 results. Exalead has it at #1 and Accoona has it at #3.
Clearly this is not good, for a whole host of obvious reasons. The question becomes 'what, if anything, should be done about it?' I don't think it's something the search engines should get involved with themselves, because that's a slippery slope they're already peering down. The suggestion from Hoffman is two fold - not to link to the site itself and secondly, to link to a whole bunch of other sites that treat the subject rather more objectively, or at least, without a rascist bias.
I'm in two minds on this. Obviously it's a nasty little site, and I don't like it, but it is unfortunately a very good example of why you can't trust search engine results, and how it's necessary to evaluate material. However, this can be done by not linking directly to it, but making a simple text link that can be cut, pasted and edited, such as www.martinlutherking_dot_org or by creating a TinyURL link to the site. Linking to other, better MLK sites is a good idea, and I approve of that - as long as - and this is my caveat - they are good and informative sites without an inherent bias in them. Hoffman lists a number of sites which I presume are good quality, but since my knowledge of MLK is limited I'm going to have to take his word for it. Improving the general quality of search engine results is obviously a good idea, and that's one way that will work across engines. I'd also suggest that it's worth visiting search engines that allow you to rank/rate results and boosting some sites at the expense of others.
On the other hand, to what extent should we be doing this anyway? I make the point that Google bombing isn't really a good idea, using the obvious 'Liar' and 'Miserable Failure' examples, which at least have the advantage of being humourous and clearly obvious manipulation of the rankings. However, if we then decide to say 'This is a bad site (because I/we think so) and I'm going to do something about it by articifically attempting to adjust the rankings in Google et al is that actually a good thing? After all, at what point would we want to stop? Get that site (or any other) off the #2 spot? Off the #10? How about down to #100. How about out of the Google database? How about closing the site down entirely? Of course, then you can go to the second step which is 'why stop at that site?' Do we then end up with groups of people artificially attempting to move pages up and down the rankings? Yes of course we already have that, with Search Engine Optimisers and indeed individual web authors, but I hope that the point I'm making is clear.
I don't have answers I'm afraid, but I'd be interested in opinions and comments, since this is an important issue, particularly from the viewpoint of educators and librarians.