Monday, July 14, 2003

Prank Message Via Google Mocks WMD Search

By MATTHEW FORDAHL, AP Technology Writer

The hunt for weapons of mass destruction isn't going so well in Iraq. It's not going so well on Google, either.

Type "weapons of mass destruction" into the Internet search engine and hit the "I'm feeling lucky" button. What you'll get is an authentic-looking error message created as a lark by a British pharmacist now enjoying his 15 minutes of Internet fame.

"These Weapons of Mass Destruction cannot be displayed," it reads. "The country might be experiencing technical difficulties, or you may need to adjust your weapons inspectors mandate."

No hacking was involved — or necessary.

Anthony Cox, 34, of Birmingham, England, created the site in February to get a few chuckles from friends. Those friends — and friends of their friends — started linking to his page from their sites and Web diaries.

The number of links to a particular site is a major factor that Google considers when indexing pages to be returned via its search engine. The "lucky" button takes users to the top-ranked page for a particular search.

Cox, previously best known on the Web for his day job of studying drug safety, says he had no idea the page would reach the top of the list for WMD searches.

"It was really just a private joke among a few individuals and then I sent it off to a newsgroup," he said. "It just spread like wildfire throughout February. ... And then it started to die down during the war. During that time it had accumulated links from other Web sites, which pushed it up the Google page ranking system.

"Then it just went through the stratosphere in terms of hits," he said. "It became even more funny that Google couldn't find any WMD."

Cox's site isn't the only popular page to take a tongue-in-cheek approach to serious queries. Type in "French military victories" and hit the "lucky" button. A page designed to look like it's from Google asks, "Did you mean: French military defeats."

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google declined to comment on specifics, but a spokesman confirmed that those sites are at the top of the list because they scored the highest under the company's automated system.

For users who hit the regular search button, Google returns 1.4 million pages on the search "weapons of mass destruction." Though Cox's joke is on top, the remainder are mostly serious.

Cox says the number of hits reached a crescendo during the week of July 4 and has not showed any sign of slowing down. He's received hundreds of e-mail messages, including from weapons inspectors who found it amusing.

A number of e-mails criticized Cox, who said he was not against the war.

"It's been widely seen as anti-war, but that's not what my intention was," he said.

Cox does not spare "Old Europe" either.

"If you are an Old European Country trying to protect your interests, make sure your options are left wide open as long as possible," it reads. "Click the Tools menu, and then click on League of Nations. On the Advanced tab, scroll to the Head in the Sand section and check settings for your exports to Iraq."

Cox says he hasn't experienced any major repercussions from the joke.

"I don't have the White House or Donald Rumsfeld breathing down my neck yet," he said. "There hasn't been a SEAL extraction team to get me yet."

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