How Christina Aguilera became queen of “dying grandparents”

Explaining the SEO behind this totally bizarre Google image search.

Mar 2, 2020, 11:58 pm*


Lorraine Murphy 

Lorraine Murphy

Have you ever wondered what happens when you do a Google Image search for “dying grandparents”?

Sure, why not. It was a logical enough question to occur to a contributor at Buzzfeed, a factoid-aggregating website that deals in everything from OMG to LOL. Two days ago, it occurred to staffer Dave Stopera, and the result was deep into WTF territory.

Dozens and dozens of pictures of Christina Aguilera.

Was the Ecuadorian songstress moonlighting as some sort of granny-offing assassin? Has she ever been arrested for senicide? Could it be a case of search engine optimization gone amok? Was this somehow 4chan’s fault?

Actually, the answer turns out to be nothing so nefarious as any of the above. As an A-List celebrity constantly featured in gossip blogs, Aguilera simply has so much Googlejuice that she blew away all actual dying-grandparent-having civilians, people who rarely have their pictures featured on RadarOnline or TMZ.

Until this morbid story broke, the front page of Google’s “dying grandparents” search was full of mostly to-the-point articles about coping with the looming loss of family members. Down at the bottom of the page was a June 2012 article from RadarOnline which suggested the singer, who was estranged from her father, was missing out on the last days of her paternal grandparents, both of whom were gravely ill. You’d expect image searches to return a similarly varied slate of results, but you’d be wrong for several reasons.

First, stories about dying grandparents tend not to be illustrated with photos of the grieving or the dying. The only exception is when it’s someone famous: When fame is involved, however tangentially, the media will always run a picture of the celebrity. You won’t see many stories about a star’s new yacht that come with a picture of the boat instead of the star. The public doesn’t care about a boat, really, and the media knows this. The same, alas, can be said for perfectly nice, but obscure, dying grandparents. Thus, the majority of pictures are going to be of the star with the dying grandparents.

Secondly, once a story is on a gossip blog, it gets recycled and linked to by a dozen or more gossip sites daily. Celebrity blogs have a conspiracy of linking, you link to me three times a week and I’ll link to you three times a week, and this has been very, very successful at raising the search engine standings of gossip blogs, despite the best efforts of Google, Yahoo, et al. Search engines rank posts with incoming links higher than other posts. So, all other things being equal, a gossip blog’s post on a subject will generally outrank a non-gossip blog’s post on the subject.

Images themselves have huge Googlejuice, as every image offers multiple places to put in keywords, those words for which search engines are looking—in this case, “dying grandparents.” Gossip blogs are heavily image-dependent; you won’t find many posts without a picture. On WordPress, the most common gossip site software, each image has four places for keywords: the file name, alt “floater” text, caption, and description. If each one has “Xtina dying grandparents” then one single image hits that result four times, without even taking into account the title and text contents of the post. Again, search engines are taking action to mitigate this effect, but it still means that any post with an image outranks any equivalent post without, and any blog with a lot of pictures outranks any site without, again giving the advantage to image-focused celebrity blogs.

We hope that Xtina and her family have worked out their differences, but clearly if that singing thing ever starts to peter out for her, she could always go into the SEO business.

Photo via Cea/Flickr

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*First Published: Dec 10, 2012, 9:37 am