Googling For Weapons

British pharmacist Anthony Cox poses next to his laptop computer which displays the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" web page he created, in his office in the Birmingham City Hospital, Monday July 14, 2003. Type "weapons of mass destruction" into Google's seach engine and hit the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button. What you'll get is an authenic-looking error message created as a lark by Cox, now enjoying his 15 minutes of Internet fame.
The hunt for weapons of mass destruction isn't going so well in Iraq. It's not going so well on Google, either.

Type "weapons of mass destruction" into the Internet search engine and hit the "I'm feeling lucky" button. What you'll get is an authentic-looking error message created as a lark by a British pharmacist now enjoying his 15 minutes of Internet fame.

"These Weapons of Mass Destruction cannot be displayed," it reads. "The country might be experiencing technical difficulties, or you may need to adjust your weapons inspectors mandate."

No hacking was involved - or necessary.

Anthony Cox, 34, created the site in February to get a few chuckles from friends. Those friends - and friends of their friends - started linking to his page from their sites and Web diaries.

The number of links to a particular site is a major factor that Google considers when indexing pages to be returned via its search engine. The "lucky" button takes users to the top-ranked page for a particular search.

Cox says he had no idea the page would reach the top of the list for WMD searches.

"It was really just a private joke among a few individuals and then I sent it off to a newsgroup," he said. "It just spread like wildfire throughout February."

Cox's site isn't the only popular page to take a tongue-in-cheek approach to serious queries. Type in "French military victories" and hit the "lucky" button. A page designed to look like it's from Google asks, "Did you mean: French military defeats."

A spokesman for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google confirmed that those sites are at the top of the list because they scored the highest under the company's automated system.

Cox says the number of hits reached a crescendo during the week of July 4 and has not showed any sign of slowing down. He's received hundreds of e-mail messages, including from weapons inspectors who found it amusing.

A number of e-mails criticized Cox, who said he was not against the war.

However, Cox says he hasn't experienced any major repercussions from the joke.

"I don't have the White House or Donald Rumsfeld breathing down my neck yet," he said. "There hasn't been a SEAL extraction team to get me yet."

By Matthew Fordahl