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Rick Santorum’s Google Problem = Google’s Rick Santorum Problem

Rick Santorum is upset that a Google search for his name produces a string of unflattering — some might say libelous — material.

Roll Call:

Rick Santorum has a Google problem.

The former Pennsylvania Senator might be well-known on Capitol Hill, but his name more regularly produces blank stares in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, if recent polling is any guide. The likely Republican presidential candidate knows he needs to expand his name identification.

Santorum can only hope voters don’t turn to Google, the world’s most popular Internet search engine, to learn more about him.

Try it for yourself: Enter “Rick Santorum” into Google. In a fraction of a second you’ll have hundreds of thousands of results. But two of the top four cite a graphic definition for a sexual neologism. In this case, the neologism is a reference to anal sex.

This, of course, is no accident.

Santorum himself sounded slightly defeated when asked about it recently.  “It’s one guy. You know who it is. The Internet allows for this type of vulgarity to circulate. It’s unfortunate that we have someone who obviously has some issues. But he has an opportunity to speak,” Santorum told Roll Call.

Santorum’s Google problem began in 2003, when gay sex-advice columnist Dan Savage sought to mock Santorum’s comments on homosexuality. Then the third-most-powerful Republican in the Senate, Santorum told the Associated Press that April that gay sex could “undermine the fabric of our society.” The interview touched on a Supreme Court case related to sexual privacy, and Santorum compared homosexual acts to allowing for “man on child, man on dog” relationships. “And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does,” he said at the time.

Savage soon created the website spreadingsantorum.com, tied to a contest in which he asked readers to submit definitions for the term “santorum.” It would be among the first “Google bombs” in the modern political era. Using extensive links to other sites, Savage soon ensured that the winning definition would be among the top search results. (The search yields even less flattering sites if users search for the Republican’s last name alone.)

Those search results — not for the squeamish — have been the subject of viral Internet chatter for years. The nationally syndicated Savage inspired a coalition of gay activists and liberals from across the country to spread the term as widely as possible, creating a meme that helped now-Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.) unseat Santorum in 2006, and, ultimately, one that makes Santorum’s presidential hopes laughable in some circles.

Now, my instinctive reaction is similar to Radley Balko‘s:  “I like that his defenders are appealing to civility. The guy thinks there should be laws preventing gay people from having sex in their own homes, and likens homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.”

While I argued at the time that Santorum’s views on homosexuality weren’t all that unusual, I called his comments “very stupid” and noted that “consensual adult sodomy is different from most of the acts on the list, given that most of the others are generally done without consent of effected third parties.”  Given that Santorum hasn’t walked these statements back, he deserves to live with them.

On the other hand: Surely, some made-up definition concocted by a niche columnist of questionable character is not high among the most relevant pages on the Internet about Rick Santorum.

This is yet another instance of the failure of search engines. (In fairness to Google, Bing actually makes the “Google bomb” reference the first result and Yahoo the second, so its competitors aren’t doing any better.)

The Rick Santorum Wikipedia page should in fact be ranked among the top results. Ditto, Rick Santorum & America’s Foundation, which is hosted at ricksantorum.com.  I’m not sure they’re the two most relevant results, frankly, but Wikipedia, IMDB, and a self-referencing domain will almost always be atop any person’s rankings.

But, for example, if the bestiality comments Santorum made seven years ago are really among the most significant facts about him — and I believe they are — shouldn’t the results include major media reports from that time?

And why is a January 2011 HuffPo blog post ranked so high? And also a reprint of the same blog post by ABC News?!

Or some site called “Santorum Exposed”?

Why are there blog posts about this story, dating back only 14 minutes?! And, if the suddenly viral story deserves to be among the very top results on Google, why not Mother Jones’ more thorough treatment of it from last fall?

Like it or not, Google is where the average person is going to learn about candidates, causes, and issues. But too much of what shows up on the first page or two of the results — all that almost anybody will ever read — is garbage. Certainly, little of it is among the most useful information about Rick Santorum — or anybody or anything else.

via Taegan Goddard

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    On the other hand: This is yet another instance the failure of search engines.

    What are you talking about? Failure to do what? Help Rick Santorum? What, exactly, do you think search engines do? What do you think they’re supposed to do?

    I guess we get an idea here:

    But, for example, if the bestiality comments Santorum made seven years ago are really among the most significant facts about him

    So search engines are supposed to find you the “most significant facts” about what you’re searching? Really? How do you define “significant?” How do you create a search engine that works from your definition?

    Google is where the average person is going to learn about candidates, causes, and issues.

    Define the “average person.” My guess is the average person will never search Google about Santorum.

    But too much of what shows up on the first page or two of the results — all that almost anybody will ever read — is garbage.

    So the link to Wikipedia at the top is garbage (Wikipedia is often the top result)? The link to Santorum’s PAC in second place is garbage? Please define “garbage.”

    Certainly, little of it is among the most useful information about Rick Santorum — or anybody or anything else.

    Most useful to whom, and for what?

    You have a lot of assumptions in your piece, seemingly based on what you think a search engine should deliver to you, specifically. You don’t seem to recognize that a) you aren’t everybody, b) different people may find different information “useful”, c) the “average” person does not in fact get most knowledge of political candidates from Google, and d) you don’t really understand how search engines work.

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  2. Vast Variety says:

    The issue is in the algorithm of Google’s search engine. The relevancy can be significantly influenced by links to and from a particular web page. Every time a blogger links to the page with that unflattering information on it, it helps keep it at the top of Google’s search results.

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  3. TG Chicago says:

    Why did you describe Dan Savage as “a niche columnist of questionable character”? I mean, “niche columnist” is okay, though most columnists have their niches. But what is questionable about his character?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. James Joyner says:

    @mantis and @VV:

    I understand why Google’s algorithms are returning the results that they do. Indeed, I’ve benefited from it as a blogger, often being ranked higher for search terms than I reasonably should.

    But Google is failing at its stated mission when it returns crap results. You simply can’t tell me that the average person searching for “Rick Santorum,” a former United States Senator and presidential aspirant, as primarily interested in some nonsense entry a dirtbag columnist concocted and popularized through scamming the algorithm.

    @TG Chicago:

    This is a guy who outs closeted gays and tries to infect people with diseases to further his political agenda.

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  5. mantis says:

    This is a guy who outs closeted gay

    Name one person Savage has outed.

    This is a guy who outs closeted gays and tries to infect people with diseases to further his political agenda.

    Infect people with diseases? You have any proof of that, or is it just libel?

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  6. mantis says:

    I understand why Google’s algorithms are returning the results that they do. Indeed, I’ve benefited from it as a blogger, often being ranked higher for search terms than I reasonably should.

    But Google is failing at its stated mission when it returns crap results.

    “Crap results” is a subjective judgement call on your part. That’s why I asked you to define your terms. You apparently want a search engine to behave based on your preferences and attitudes. If you understand how Google’s search algorithm works, then please tell us how you propose to fix it so results are more to your liking.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @mantis

    Savage admits to having outed and defends outing Republican officials, even if they wind up committing suicide from the experience.

    See his column Stalking Gary Bauer for his account of trying to infect him with the flue.

    As to the Google algorithm, they already do quite a bit to, for example, go after content farms. Surely, they can defeat highly publicized Google bombs.

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  8. mantis says:

    Savage admits to having outed and defends outing Republican officials, even if they wind up committing suicide from the experience.

    He admits to outing no one in the linked piece. Nice try.

    See his column Stalking Gary Bauer for his account of trying to infect him with the flue.

    Oh, see, I thought you were being serious. Silly me.

    As to the Google algorithm, they already do quite a bit to, for example, go after content farms. Surely, they can defeat highly publicized Google bombs.

    The fact that you don’t understand the difference shows how little you know about what you’re writing about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. James Joyner says:

    Savage is a despicable, hate-filled scumbag. Read any of his columns.

    I read Matt Cutts’ blog and Twitterfeed and several top SEO sites. I’m not a programming expert, but I know what Google claims that their goals are. My point is that obviously gamed results, especially those that detract from the user experience, shouldn’t be among the top 3 results shown.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  10. mantis says:

    Savage is a despicable, hate-filled scumbag. Read any of his columns.

    I read his columns for years back in the day. He helps a lot of people deal with really tough situations that other advice columnists wouldn’t touch. I’m quite familiar with Dan Savage. Are you?

    Btw, you didn’t back up your claim that Savage outed anyone.

    My point is that obviously gamed results, especially those that detract from the user experience, shouldn’t be among the top 3 results shown.

    The results aren’t “gamed” when they reflect actual popular interest in the links. The Santorum meme wasn’t spread through content farms and bot tricks, but by actual people. What other popular things do you think Google should eliminate from search results?

    Your views of “user experience” and what detracts from it are entirely subjective.

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  11. Loviatar says:

    Don’t want to thread jack, because I am so enjoying watching James squirm as he tries to justify his apologist post for the truly “despicable “Rick Santorum”

    However, I did want to say, keep up the good work mantis, we need more of this – a mirror to the “sensible conservative” face whenever they write apologetic, rationalizing BS.

    Show them who they are defending and ask for facts to back up their assertions. We can’t embarrass and shame the crazies (i.e. Birthers, Breitbart, etc.) to change, nothing but history can do that and even then not totally (neo-conservatives, torture apologist, etc.). Maybe though we can embarrass and shame the “sensible conservative” into change by realizing this is who you’ve shackled yourself to, this is the face of your party, these are the people history is going to remember you by.

    At the end of the day James, Santorum is the face of your party, OWN HIM.

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  12. Steve Verdon says:

    But Google is failing at its stated mission when it returns crap results.

    James…that pun…you should be ashamed. :p

    But I would also argue the result is legitimate. If that is what Santorum is best known for or is one of the top things he is known for then having it be near the top of an internet search engine result is legitimate. There is a lesson here that goes way back beyond the internet that my grandmother uses: People may think you are a fool until you open your mouth and remove all doubt. In Santorum’s case he opened his mouth and removed all doubt that he is a fool.

    Savage is a despicable, hate-filled scumbag. Read any of his columns.

    I would say the same for Santorum. He has clearly linked homosexual acts with other behaviors that are horrifying–raping a child. How else would you describe a person who make such a comparison if not hate filled?

    Should Santorum be president? IMO, never. This is a man who doesn’t believe in a right to privacy. What you do in your bedroom be it with an adult of the same sex or opposite sex is not only your business, but his as well….well so long as he is in the government. He is creepy all around.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @Mantis: Savage’s own words: “Outing someone, as I wrote when I helped out one asshole and declined to participate in the outing of another, is a brutal tactic and should be reserved for brutes. ”

    @Loviatar: I explicitly reject Santorum’s preferred policy outcome and the substance of his analogy now and did so when he made the comments years ago. All I’m saying is that some made up word that gained popularity because a relatively few people conspired to get it high ranking shouldn’t be atop the search results.

    @Steve Verdon: I take your point (and Mantis’). Clearly, a Google Bomb requires some number of people. But it’s an intentional gaming of the system. Google uses backlinks as a gauge of authority because they’re supposed to be organic. And they fight most attempts to cheat that system.

    If, for example, a Mother Jones article ripping Santorum to shreds for his homophobia were near the top of the results because it was widely discussed and “earned” the links, I’d have zero complaint.

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  14. ponce says:

    “At the end of the day James, Santorum is the face of your party, OWN HIM.”

    Agreed.

    You should see Tea Party members squirming today when I point out their politicians would deny Laura Logan an abortion if they could.

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  15. jpe says:

    I don’t see any libel. It’s simply a fact that santorum is anal froth.

    re: Santorum’s views: they were both common and disgusting. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

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  16. PJ says:

    I feel sad for people named Santorum who are not closely related to Rick Santorum.

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  17. mantis says:

    Savage’s own words: “Outing someone, as I wrote when I helped out one asshole and declined to participate in the outing of another, is a brutal tactic and should be reserved for brutes. ”

    Did you follow the link and read it? Guess not, because he never claims to have outed anyone. Here’s the link, if you’re interested in reading things before you tell us what they say.

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  18. TG Chicago says:

    “Savage admits to having outed and defends outing Republican officials, even if they wind up committing suicide from the experience.”

    But it’s okay for Republican officials to pursue a homophobic agenda which clearly contributes to a higher suicide rate among gay teenagers?

    When Savage outs a Republican who has used virulent homophobic rhetoric, that’s called poetic justice. Frankly, that Republican’s constituents are better served for knowing about his hypocrisy. When a Republican uses virulent homophobic rhetoric to marginalize innocent gay people, that’s despicable and deserving of (nonviolent) reprisal.

    And saying that Savage tries to infect people with “diseases” when you mean the flu is highly disingenuous to say the least. When you say he “tries to infect people with diseases to further his political agenda”, you’re either quite stupid for not realizing the implications or you’re quite ugly for intentionally casting such aspersions.

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  19. mantis says:

    When Savage outs a Republican who has used virulent homophobic rhetoric, that’s called poetic justice.

    When Savage outs…? He hasn’t done that.

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  20. sam says:

    I dunno which side of this debate this supports (if any), but googling ‘man on dog’ returns Santorum controversy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia as first hit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. TG Chicago says:

    “When Savage outs…? He hasn’t done that.”

    He said he helped out someone. I see no reason to doubt him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. steve says:

    Is there any instance of a Google bomb succeeding against someone who had no history of making such controversial comments? If the larger point James is striving for is not supported by it affecting anyone other than Santorum, whom I have met and I am not surprised he generated this kind of response, then it is not so much of a concern.

    Steve

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  23. Matt B says:

    Taking the question of Google-bombing from a different angle, It seems like the problem that there is an assumption that search rank hasn’t always, already been a game? Maybe it’s just faith in the Algorythm, but having started back in the web business back in ’96, search engine optimization (reverse engineering and gaming) was there from the beginning, pre-Google (like Alta Vista and before).

    And, for that matter “gaming” has been a part of media from the beginning. The problem is what is read into the word “relevance.”

    BTW: something bubbling one level down in all of this is a recognition of how Google influences the construction of content that “hopes” to be “relevant.” At least in terms of corporate pages and newspapers, the majority of material we read on the web is laid/optimized for Google’s spiders, not human readers.

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  24. But Google is failing at its stated mission when it returns crap results.

    There’s apparently a significant body of people out there who think that is an important result. Why should google favor your aesthetics over theirs?

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  25. James Joyner says:

    Stormy,

    Here are Google’s “Quality guidelines – basic principles”

    *Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.”

    *Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

    *Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

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  26. Matt B says:

    James, the problem with those rules is that they are largely binaries from the days, circa 99/2000, when the way to garner traffic was to have “Brittney Speaks Naked Sex Orgy” repeated ad nauseum in “transparent” text at the bottom of each page. In fact, Google is notoriously bad at updating that sort of information/documentation.

    Generally speaking, all their algorithms are primarily concerned with is making sure that people can’t “game” their way to free advertising. The accuracy of the content or its context, is largely secondary to them. It’s just that usually in doing 1 you end up with meeting the needs of 2.

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  27. SGEW says:

    In further defense of Dan Savage, the “It Gets Better Project” is probably one of the best things that the internet has helped produce in the U.S.A. (You could even say that it balances out the Santorum google bomb, internets-wise, if you like.)

    Also: “despicable, hate-filled scumbag”? Ok, so you find the Santorum substance thing despicable (I, too, think it’s all rather tawdry — and worrisome in its implications for the misuse of search engines). Fine. But Mr. Savage is only “hate-filled” against people who consider him to be morally equivalent to child and animal abusers; I think a little anger on his part is, at least, understandable.

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  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    When the biter is bit, whining about it seems a bit silly

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  29. Alan says:

    Yeah. No sympathy for Santorum. His characterization was odious and inflammatory. Marginalization of a minority when one ought to know better (and in 2003, he should have) deserves a harsh result. The lack of uniformity of condemnation of such statements may seem unfair to Mr. Santorum, given that his treatment is ont he harshest end of the spectrum.

    I certainly appreciate the “I am not a bigot” bewilderment of socio-religious conservatives whose opinions (“gays are sick sinful perverts like childmolesters”) have gone from being supermajority mainstream to reviled as hateful and akin to racism and anti-semitism is less than a couple of decades, but their inability to reconcile their faith or otherwise adjust their attitude to accept the changing understanding of homosexuality as a morally neutral trait whose holders are entitled to equality under the law does not give them a free pass to continue the viciousness, and to make arguments so lacking in fact or truth as to give rise to teh labelling of organizations which advance them as hate groups.

    It’s the internet age. Memes happen. So Mr. Santorum was 2003’s “dog poop girl”. Tough break for him. At least the dog poop girl cleaned up her act. If and when Mr. Santorum cleans up his act, I will consider supporting some corrective internet action.

    Of course, i have to tell you that since he hasn’t dialed it back, those statements in 2003 are the most important thing that I need to know about him, and that every person I know who is gay, has a gay friend or relative, or otherwise has come to accept the new understanding of homosexuality needs to know to make a political decision to support or oppose this man. Yo people like me, equality is a core principle. I am willing to put up with Democratic governance for as many years as it takes for equality to materialize. They’re not gonna wreck the country in a decade or two. There is a much greater risk of that from using the law to create unequal classes of citizens when we ought to know better, like we do now.

    Mr. Joyner, your opinion of Mr. Savage seems fairly misinformed. I read his column on a regular basis. Mr. Savage is occasionally harsh, and often snarky. But he is obviously motivated by concern for those who seek his advice (or those who are being hurt by the letter writer) and his view of sexuality and relationships is a model, in its uncontentional way, for improving sexual morality and happiness. And yes, the lives that might be saved by the very meritorious “It Gets Better” project is worth mentioning here.

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