Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock it would not have been easy to escape the controversy over the proposed construction of a “mosque” at Ground Zero in New York City. The words “mosque” and “ground zero” proved to be a volatile mix that ignited a clash of cultures and ideas between those arguing religious freedom and those calling the planned construction an insult to the memory of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Nestor Arellano

The words also make for one hell of a good SEO (search engine optimization) device. It didn’t matter that: 1) the building in question is not a mosque but an Islamic centre that includes a swimming pool, community rooms and offices; and 2) it is not in Ground Zero but actually two blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood. Nearly every printed, televised, blogged, or Twitter message an posted account of the topic used the terms “mosque” and “ground zero.”

I think this illustrates the powerful impact that SEO and search engines have not only over marketing goods and services over the Internet but also on our world view. 

Online marketers know that the top 10 items on the first page of a Google search result are the most critical. Many people doing  an online search rarely go beyond the first page. They are also most likely to open up the top five items on the first page rather than check out every item up to the bottom of the page.

No one outside the Google organization knows exactly what the search engine’s secret source is for ranking search results. Google’s search robots roam the Web, visit millions of sites and online content and through arcane algorithmic computations decide the search ranking of the online content. The number of people linking to the online material, also influences this computation, according to SEO experts.

I suspect the phrase “ground zero mosque” was first used by people who were critical or opposed to the building. But once this gathered enough interest online and was indexed by Google it became very hard for media outlets not to use the phrase.

The name had stuck thanks to traditional word-of-mouth carriers and viral online social media channels. People looking for news on that building being built on the old Burlington Coat Factory facility in the Lower Manhattan area, became conditioned to type in “ground zero mosque” on their Google search bar. Even if editors wanted to reach out to readers with the accurate information, many felt they had to play by search engine rules and use the phrase in order for their stories to be read. (Take a look at this blog’s “very original” headline)

Just as marketers seek to latch their brand onto a catchy phrase, the initial instigators of the controversy effectively framed the conversation on this topic by developing buzz around a flammable term and letting SEO and a viral online community do the rest.

Wondering how you can use SEO techniques towards less controversial ends, such as boosting your businesses’ profile? Check out the following ITBusiness.ca articles:

SEO secrets to boost your Google Local rank

Four surefire ways to create a Google friendly Web site

How to use search engines and advertising to boost your online business and bottomline