Recently, in my strategic social media class, we discussed the “Amazon Fail” crisis of April, 2009. For those who don’t know, last spring Amazon began classifying books with homosexual themes as “adult,” which erased their status on rank lists. The public outrage manifested through Twitter, aggregated by the hashtag #amazonfail. Those leading the movement to boycott Amazon encouraged “Google bombing.” According to Wikipedia, the terms “Google bomb” or “Googlewashing” refer to “practices intended to influence the ranking of particular pages in results returned by the Google search engine in order to increase the likelihood of people finding and clicking on selections in which the individual or other entity engaging in this practice is interested.” In this case, angry authors and their supporters wanted the website “smartbitchestrashybooks” to be the first listing found when searching “Amazon” on Google.
In the middle of this discussion, some fellow classmates tweeted that Google bombing is never ethical. This struck me as odd, as I found nothing unethical about the disgruntled Amazonfail movement Google bombing Amazon. I think that this situation illuminates a gray area. In some cases, Google bombing is certainly unethical. I believe that if it is a strategic, public relations-driven initiative to drive traffic away or to an organization or mislead the public, then that is unethical. It is unethical because it is taking advantage of and abusing influential channels like Google in a dishonest and shady way. It erodes transparent and honest public relations.
However, in the case of Amazon, it was an authentic groundswell of discontent expressing frustration through digital channels. I find nothing unethical about this. In fact, I find this case to be rather democratic. Transparent and authentic Grassroots strategies and tactics to express discontent online are no more unethical than those that exist in the offline world.
Thoughts? Do you think it is unethical? Always? Sometimes? Never?