Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mystery of 'Na pohybel janas' solved?

An Australian search engine expert living in New York believes he has got to the bottom of the mystery surrounding an obscure search term that inexplicably popped up in Google's fastest-rising search queries worldwide.

The term "na pohybel janas" has been the seventh fastest-rising search query on Google by Australians over the past 30 days, and has been equally if not more popular in other regions around the world. In Australia it sits behind terms such as "cyclone yasi", "australian open", "biggest loser" and "egypt", but above "big day out", according to Google Insights for Search.

Frank Watson believes that, in the absence of an official explanation from Google, the spike in searches around the query can only be logically attributed to a virus designed to game Google by surreptitiously running searches on victims' computers.

Watson, who grew up in Brisbane but moved to New York 20 years ago, is a journalist at the blog Search Engine Watch and runs the search engine marketing company Kangamurra Media.

Na pohybel janas, which means "death to Janas" in Polish, is also the name of a Slavic rock band. Videos of the band can be found on YouTube and searching the term in Google either brings up information about the band or pages with discussions on how the term sprung up out of nowhere to hit Google's fastest-rising queries list.

"It's definitely something that's gaming the search engines," said Watson.

"The virus is testing the influence it has by promoting an obscure Polish band ... they know whatever it is works, they've done their little test market."

Some user reports have said searches for "na pohybel janas" appear in their search history despite them havingno recollection of conducting the searches.

Watson said this, coupled with the fact that there was a uniform spike in searches for the term around the world, suggested some sort of malware was involved. Before the recent spike, there were virtually no searches for the term.

Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, said he was investigating the issue but found it to be "definitely weird". The Search Engine Roundtable blog did not have an explanation either but speculated that it was a "Google search hack".

Google Insights for Search showed that searches for the term are particularly high around Virginia, where AOL is headquartered, and around Mountain View, where Google is based. Watson believes Google is scrambling to find out the cause of the spike.

"The search engines themselves, they look and get alerts when all of a sudden a particular keyword is getting a hell of a lot of searches," he said.

"A lot of the time it makes sense - on Sunday night there was a sudden spike in searches around things related to music and the Grammies. But if all of a sudden up comes an unintelligible word ... that's generally malware."

The search term has also been particularly popular in Eastern Europe, an area that Watson said was "notorious for search bots".

Watson said the scheme would have bypassed Google's built-in protections as the searches appeared to be coming from legitimate computer users around the world. Google features such as Google Suggest, which suggests popular terms as users are typing queries, could be vulnerable to this type of gaming.

"If I make 1000 searches on my computer for a word, that's not going to get me into Google Suggest because Google see it's just one IP address making all these searches, but if there's computers around the world making searches then that would fill in the search suggest box," said Watson.

Further, the fact that the term mysteriously popped up in Google's fastest rising list would drive people to search for the term just to find out what it is.

"It looks like it's some sort of promotion for that band or the band just happens to be getting the luck of the draw," said Watson.

"It could just be someone trying to test something and they found something really obscure, or it could be someone consciously doing it specifically for this Polish band."

A reader commenting on yesterday's story said "na pohybel Janas" was a cry by Polish football fans against the former Polish coach Pawel Janas.

Watson said he did not believe this was causing the spike in searches as there were no news stories on Polish websites about that issue and the news certainly didn't get global recognition.

"Was this Polish fans all around the world bitching about their coach? I didn't see any mention of it in the news, if it was a chant against that coach and it was so popular, you would think some Polish newspaper would have written a story with that term," said Watson.

Searches for the phrase on the regular Google site and the Polish version mainly show references to the band.

"When you do a search, the only thing of significance it pointed to apart from people starting to wonder what it was were those two references to a band," he said.

"It was such an odd search term that you would have to wonder what was being done with it ... the conclusion that you draw without any input from Google and form the few references is that it's malware that's promoting searches for this term in Google and that's why it spiked."

Searches for the term have dropped off in the last week after spiking for about a month.

Google refused to comment on the reasons for the spike, but in a general comment said the hot trends list was automatically generated by machines and algorithms that detect hot or breaking stories.

"While we have filtering mechanisms in place to help prevent objectionable and automated queries from appearing on Google Trends, no filter is 100 per cent accurate. We're continually updating and improving our filters in order to provide the best user experience possible," it said.

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