PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) -- It has been said that hell has many levels, and apparently some people see software giant Microsoft Corp. at its core.
At least that's according to the search engine Google, which when given a query for the term "go to hell," kicks back the home page of the world's largest software maker -- a rather humorous result, considering Google's reputation for producing the most accurate search results.
Microsoft's corporate rivals should not be so quick to chuckle, however.
The official home pages for AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online division and for Walt Disney Co. also come in among the top five results under the "go to hell" query. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.)
But how does Microsoft beat a site called Hell.com for top ranking in the "go to hell" category, on a search engine that made a reputation putting the most relevant results first?
The easiest answer is that Microsoft has a lot of enemies.
Although Google offered no explanation on the "go to hell" matter, Google's site is famous for its "link analysis" method of producing search results. When users enter a word or term, they get back not just those Web sites containing that term but other sites as well, that are linked to those that contain the word or phrase, in question.
Microsoft's home page, in other words, may not contain the phrase "go to hell" anywhere, but there are apparently a lot of other sites out there that mention Microsoft (or AOL, or Disney) and going to hell in the same context.
"I call them Google blips," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an industry newsletter. "These are the things that happen when Web sites start linking to other Web sites. It just means that there are probably a lot of people who don't like Microsoft, and that is not a surprise."
Sullivan has tracked the search engine industry for years and has multiple examples of the way links between different Web sites have produced misleading search results.
Other Web sites targetted
There were the porn sites whose names appeared when users entered "Liv Tyler nude" or "Phoebe Cates nude," even though the sites in question contained no such photos of those celebrities. Searches of other pornographic terms have sometimes referred users to the Walt Disney home page, supposedly because some porn sites jokingly refer users over to Disney when they respond that they are not over 18. There is even a relatively obscure journalist named David Gallagher who managed to get top ranking above a somewhat better-known teen heartthrob with the same name, by building links between his Web site and others.
When such erroneous search results appear, it is not always clear whether someone actually set out to manipulate them by building the false links, or, like with the "go to hell" term, there were already some funny links out there. Earlier this year some practical jokers managed to build some links so that the name of a particular Web log publisher appeared when users entered the term "talentless hack" in Google's search box.
Although it is harder to confirm, false links have also reportedly been used to call attention to political events, or to give commercial sites higher billing.
Google has in the past pointed out that search results are not so easily manipulated, given the nearly 2.5 billion Web pages it scans. And most people in the industry note that because these false links are accidental more often than they are planned, and playful more often than they are malicious, no one needs to be terribly concerned.
"I think there are some potential problems that could be developed, but most of the cases are very specific phrases that you probably wouldn't search anyway," said Greg Notess, who publishes the newsletter Search Engine Showdown. "Really, why would you enter the term 'go to hell' in the first place?"
Likewise, Sullivan of SearchEngineWatch said that while some businesses may try to manipulate search results for economic reasons, like getting their Web site or company to the top of the list, the bigger problem for Google seems to be one of perception.
Are editors the answer?
The fact that people may be able to manipulate search results, even if they do not do it that often, he said, raised the question of whether Google ought to have some human editors involved in the search process.
"I think the biggest weakness for Google may be that it is not fixing these results," said Sullivan. "They are very much in love with technology and they sort of embrace this idea that they wouldn't want to go through and touch the results that their technology produced."
"But it is not always right. It is an automated system and it comes up with some weird things."