BETTENDORF, Iowa – Whether searching for a chicken noodle soup recipe or a candidate’s position on global warming, finding it is often easy through the index of more than 3 billion Web pages known as Google – a top Internet search engine.

But as the nation’s senior politicians are learning, this powerful tool can also easily be used against them in the cyber equivalent of a political dirty trick.

President Bush, for example, is now the top search result when Googlers search for the phrase “miserable failure.” Click on the associated link and surfers are directed to his official White House biography.

The president’s biography, of course, contains no reference to any kind of failure – much less a miserable one.

But through a technique called “Google bombing,” hackers have in the last 10 days or so been able to link the president to a label heavily used by the presidential campaign of Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

News reports suggest this latest trick was led by a computer programmer who says he has no ties to the Gephardt camp.

Gephardt’s people also deny any involvement. “We have nothing to do with it, though it does happen to be true,” said Bill Burton, a Gephardt spokesman in Des Moines.

As the Internet has grown in popularity – Google claims to receive more than 200 million queries a day – it’s also proving to be a lawless environment for political shenanigans.

“This is a natural outgrowth,” said Rob Patton, a researcher with the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It’s just using a new tool for an old thing.”

Patton pointed to several recent Internet sites that could be labeled as negative campaigning, including one that showed an opponent’s nose growing longer as more pages were viewed.

“There are a lot of things going on, in particular with the Dean campaign, where you have independent efforts to post information online without the approval of the candidate’s campaign,” Patton said.

A spokesman for Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., said the company is aware of Google bombing, but not responsible for its results. “This is not a political statement from Google, but rather a reflection of a recent Web phenomenon,” the company said.

Search engines like Google scout Web pages to create a searchable index from information on the Internet.

In Google bombing, Web authors write links within their pages that tie together the phrase and then link it to another page. If enough pages contain the proper coding, Google will serve up that page as the top destination for the phrase.

In previous pranks, tricksters have rigged Google to bring up spoof pages. After France refused to join the fighting in Iraq, a search for “French military victories” brought up a page that asked, “Did you mean “French military defeats’?”

A White House spokesman didn’t return a call seeking comment about Bush’s biography being linked to the miserable failure phrase.

“The worst thing you can possibly do when something like that happens is complain about it in the press,” said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. “All that happens is that it gets more hits.”

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-10-03 2114EST

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