What happened to Googlewhacks?

Posted on October 2, 2018

 

In the early years of the 21st Century, when the internet was a comparatively shallow pool compared to the vast ocean of today, a phenomenon emerged that kept nerds busy for hours and, for one British comedian, even formed the basis for a book and tour.

The idea behind Googlewhacking was to type two words into Google that brought up exactly one result. What made the challenge even more difficult was that both words had to be in the dictionary, so success depended on taking a pair of relatively unusual words that would not normally be seen together, yet were not quite obscure enough to generate nothing at all.

Funnyman Dave Gorman contrived a comedy tour, book and a worldly adventure around Googlewhacking, where he not only found Googlewhacks, but then contacted the owners of the single sites he located and encouraged them to look for examples of their own, setting off a Googlewhacking chain. The escapade even won him a Comedy Festival 2004 award for the best one-person show.

Around that time, I had a go at finding a Googlewhack of my own, and I can still remember what my successful attempt was. It was ‘unctuous yellowhammer’. At the time, Googling that phrase brought up just one result. Today, it generates nearly 25,000. This demonstrates why Googlewhacking has died out, and why the website Googlewhack.com went offline in 2009 – the internet has become too vast to make it possible. In addition, Google has become a little smarter and has introduced ‘close variants’, something it developed further last month, meaning synonyms like ‘oily’ and ‘greasy’ might be targeted when searching for ‘unctuous’.

An alternative challenge today could be to search for two words in quotes and try to find just one result, which would be the only Google-indexed site that contains those words next to each other. At the time of writing, Googling “unctuous yellowhammer” in quotes generates no results, but by the time this blog is published and indexed by Google, it will do. So there’s every chance by the time you read this, this page will be the result of a quoted Googlewhack.

That illustrates another problematic side of Googlewhacks – once people found them, they shared them online, and once Google indexed them, they ceased to be Googlewhacks. A convention therefore developed to type Googlewhacks backwards, although this wasn’t always followed.

Googlewhacking might seem like a geeky waste of time (indeed, Gorman claims it distracted him from writing a book before it became the basis for a book itself), but computer scientist Leslie Lamport suggested a practical use for it in 2000. Although he didn’t use the phrase ‘Googlewhacking’ as such, he noted that a unique search string can provide a way to locate a document for as long as it remains on the web, even if it changed URL. To prove this point, try Googling the phrase “unctuous yellowhammer” a decade from now, and I bet it will still be the only result that comes up!

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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