Is Google (and Bing, by the way) not being “responsible” by failing to remove an anti-Rick Santorum web site? The Republican presidential candidate believes so, speaking out this week against an unfavorable listing for his name. But “fixing” Santorum’s “Google problem” isn’t as easy as it sounds.
For those who aren’t familiar with Santorum’s situation, back in 2003, the former US Senator angered gay columnist Dan Savage, not to mention some in the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community, with several anti-homosexual comments during an interview with the Associated Press.
The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.
Definition in hand, Savage launched a web site — Spreading Santorum — with letters and background information about the meme. An associated blog also operates, started in September 2010, after it was clear Santorum would be running for the US presidency.
Santorum: Google It & Bing It With Caution
Unsurprisingly, the site has long ranked in top results for a search on “santorum.” Currently, it even outranks Santorum’s official campaign web site on both Google and Bing.
The top arrow shows how Spreading Santorum currently ranks at the top of Google’s results. The lower arrow shows how Santorum’s own campaign site ranks fifth in the results or sixth, if you count the news box as a listing of its own.
Bing manages to list the main site, the associated blog, then the main site again under a different domain name — all while failing to list Santorum’s own site. The last one was so far down (but still in the top results) that I had to piece the page together, as I couldn’t screenshot it all.
Santorum’s “Google Problem” isn’t just a Google problem, as you can see. It’s also a Bing problem, plus a Yahoo problem (since Yahoo uses Bing’s results). Even Chinese-based Baidu lists Spreading Santorum over Santorum’s own site:
Only tiny Blekko, of the search engines I surveyed, doesn’t list the Spreading Santorum site over Santorum’s own, in the top results. That’s because Blekko doesn’t list either.
Postscript: Blekko CEO Rich Skrenta emailed me that by default, a search on Santorum is automatically filtered using Blekko’s /politics slashtag, which eliminates the Spreading Santorum site but not Santorum’s own site. That appears on the second page of results (and thus is largely unnoticed by searchers. Searching for [santorum /web] overrides this and brings them both up, with Spreading Santorum above Santorum’s.
Blame Liberal, Irresponsible Google
Despite this being an industry-wide phenomenon, it’s Google — as is often the case — that takes all the blame for Santorum’s problem. Yesterday, he spoke more harshly about it than I’ve heard in the past. Politico reported:
“I suspect if something was up there like that about Joe Biden, they’d get rid of it,” Santorum said. “If you’re a responsible business, you don’t let things like that happen in your business that have an impact on the country.”
He continued: “To have a business allow that type of filth to be purveyed through their website or through their system is something that they say they can’t handle but I suspect that’s not true.”
Where to begin in dissecting this? I’ve already covered that this isn’t a Google-specific problem. Bing, Yahoo and Baidu are all as “irresponsible” as Google, despite getting none of the blame.
Perhaps A Positive Impact?
Next, is it really an apparently negative “impact on the country” that Santorum has a bad listing about him in search engines? Actually, some might argue that it’s a positive impact, a sign of a healthy, important debate as part of the presidential campaign.
Santorum is a presidential candidate, in a country with millions of LGBT citizens. If you’re searching about Santorum, and you’re part of that community, you’d probably find his views on homosexuals and private sex acts to be a really important issue.
If Google (or Bing) pulled that listing, because Santorum didn’t like it, you’d also likely be wondering what else Google (or Bing) might censor to ensure political candidates weren’t mad at them. That wouldn’t give you a lot of faith in the search engine you’re using.
Removing Filth Or Censoring?
But wait! We’re talking “filth” here, as Santorum says. This is just some disgusting web site that should be removed, right?
Actually, no. The web site’s home page is devoted to the alternative definition of “santorum,” but that’s only part of what the site is about. As I said, behind it are the letters and responses to Santorum’s comments in 2003, as well as the associated blog. The blog is actually filled with critiques of things Santorum has said on the campaign trail recently.
Google & Its Conservative Agenda
Still, Google wouldn’t allow this type of listing to appear if it were for a Democrat like Joe Biden, as Santorum said. Right? Google’s just anti-Republican!
If that were the case, then why did Google help Republican President George W. Bush with his own “Google Problem,” where a search for “miserable failure” brought up the official George W. Bush biography?
After Bush endured this for three years, Google brought out a “Google Bomb” fix. Why not leave that going until Bush was gone, if Google was all about playing politics with its search listings?
Actually, Google is loath to touch its results in any way, shape or form. That’s because if it does intervene in any way, there’s some interest group that will immediately claim a bias.
Way back in 2004, an anti-Jewish web site started ranking in Google’s top results for “jew.” Despite Google cofounder Sergey Brin being Jewish and himself disgusted with the result, it stood. Intervention, when Google’s ranking algorithms had spoken, was seen as harmful to user trust.
Steven Levy covered this in his book, In The Plex (it’s a great book; buy it):
Critics urged Google to exclude it in its search results. Brin publicly grappled with the dilemma. His view on what Google should do—maintain the sanctity of search—was rational, but a tremor in his voice betrayed how much he was troubled that his search engine was sending people to a cesspool of bigotry. “My reaction was to be really upset about it,” he admitted at the time. ”It was certainly not something I want to see.”
“I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,” he said. “It’s a bad technology practice.” What seemed to shake him most was the fear that people would believe that Google was somehow endorsing Jew Watch. “I don’t want people to be under the impression that these are decisions we somehow make,” he said.
But What About Fixing Google Bombs?
Of course, Google does make changes to its ranking system all the time, ones that it feels improves relevancy overall. That “Google Bomb” fix I mentioned earlier was part of this.
The fix wasn’t intended as some type of special intervention for President Bush. Rather, it was designed to reign in a weakness in Google, where if you could get a lot of links pointing at a site saying certain words in those links (in the anchor text), the site might rank for those words, even if it had nothing to do with them.
The articles below provide more background about all this, including how the fix works and how it is run periodically over time:
- Google Kills Bush’s Miserable Failure Search & Other Google Bombs
- Google Says Stephen Colbert Is No Longer The Greatest Living American
Michelle Obama & Image Search
A different situation happened in 2009 with the First Lady, Michelle Obama. A search for her by name, in Google Images, brought up a pretty offensive image, where a monkey’s face had been superimposed over her own.
Google initially removed it, gave an explanation that didn’t quite hold up, then the image returned and remained. Recently, we noted it has gone again. Google said its algorithms had changed over time in general to cause this.
The stories below have more; the image doesn’t show at Bing, though I’m not sure if it ever did.
- Google Removes Offensive Obama Image; Was It Justified?
- Offensive Michelle Obama Image Returns, Google Buys Ad To Explain
- Disturbing Michelle Obama Image Makes A Case For Facial Recognition In Google’s New Image Search
Santorum Isn’t A Google Bomb
If you believe Google, the Michelle Obama change was part of a general relevancy improvement. Fixing Google Bombing was also designed to improve relevancy. But Santorum’s case isn’t, despite what sometimes gets reported (we’ve done it, too), a “Google Bomb.”
Indeed, back when the Google Bomb fix was released, Matt Cutts — a Google software engineer who was involved with the change — explained:
“santorum” isn’t a Googlebomb, it’s straight SEO. Here’s the difference. With a Googlebomb, you’re causing someone else’s site to rank. With SEO, you’re promoting your own site. So spreadingsantorum.com is promoting themselves for “santorum,” which is SEO….
A Googlebomb is when you’re trying to cause *someone else’s* site to rank for phrases like “враг народа” or “talentless hack” or “mouton insignifiant” or whatever.
Speading Santorum isn’t ranking just because there are links pointing at it that say “santorum” in it. It’s ranking because in addition to this, it is indeed relevant to Santorum in terms of its content.
It’s not positive about him, but it’s still relevant in the same way that if you search for Coke, you get the “Killer Coke” anti-Coca Cola web site:
To “fix” Santorum’s concern, Google would have to remove the site from its index. That’s a type of censorship that I think many people would disagree with, especially when they understand that the site isn’t solely just some joke definition designed to embarrass Santorum.
Google SafeSearch & Filtering For Children
There is a case where this result, for this search, is potentially is irresponsible. That’s when children are searching for “santorum,” something that came up when I talked with Talking Points Memo for its story on the Santorum situation yesterday.
It’s fair to say, as the election campaign heats up, some kids might be doing school research about the candidates. Getting that definition is probably what most adults — even gay adults who dislike Rick Santorum — wouldn’t want children to see.
The good news is that if Google’s SafeSearch filter is set to “strict” in Preferences (by default, it’s set to “moderate” and only filters images), Spreading Santorum gets filtered out:
You can see that the site is no longer at the top of the results. It doesn’t appear on the first page at all. Santorum’s own site continues to be listed, as the bottom arrow points at.
The top arrow points out an oddity. The Mother Jones article I mentioned earlier gets through, despite “anal sex” being in the title. Maybe “lube” and “fecal matter” are seen as more sensitive and thus causing Spreading Santorum to be filtered. I don’t know for certain; I have a question out to Google on this.
Let me stress again, this only happens when SafeSearch is taken up to the “Strict” level. By default, there is no such filtering.
Bing: Not So Safe
Over at Bing, SafeSearch (Bing has copied the same name as Google’s own filtering product), set to “Strict” using Preferences, doesn’t seem to change anything:
All the sites I mentioned before remain. The Urban Dictionary site with its explicit description also remains; Google filtered that out.
Can Santorum Fix It Himself?
Santorum, of course, wasn’t talking about Google being irresponsible in terms of children. He just doesn’t like this listing in general, for obvious reasons. But, is there anything else that can be done?
Chances are, no. The definition has been out there for years. It’s well known in certain quarters, and it keeps getting more widely know, such as through shows like The Daily Show, as we covered previously: Presidential Hopeful Santorum’s “Google Problem” Makes Daily Show.
Santorum was probably wiser a few months ago with his “just live with it attitude.” He told Roll Call in February:
“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….
Roll Call asked Santorum why he didn’t reach out to Google to try to remedy the problem. He said he never contacted the search giant directly, and his longtime consultant John Brabender dismissed the problem as a matter of free speech.
“There’s still the First Amendment,” Brabender said.
In the Politico story out yesterday, the headline says Santorum has now contacted Google over the listing, but there aren’t any specific details of exactly how. This could have been as simple as submitting feedback that any searcher can file if they feel a search result isn’t relevant.
Google’s statement (which it clarified to me was given to Politico, and not to Santorum, as Politico says) has the usual advice of working with other site owners.
For more about that, see our detailed guide below to the incredibly limited situations where Google itself will remove content:
Time For Some SEO
While Spreading Santorum isn’t going away, potentially, there’s more Santorum can do to raise his own profile.
It is poor relevance from both Google and Bing that his campaign site is ranking behind Spreading Santorum. From a relevancy standpoint, for most people, I’d say it should be first. It’s what most people doing that search are likely trying to find — except for the search voyeurs who heard about the odd ranking.
His challenge is that the campaign web site is so new, comparatively speaking. Building links over to it would likely help. That’s something supporters should be encouraged to do.
There’s also likely some SEO work that can be done. I’m not going to do an SEO review of his site to check, however. I’m pretty tired writing all this up already. But Rick, if you’re reading, see my previous advice for Bill Gates (he took it), as well as our “What Is SEO” page for further guides and information:
Santorum also has Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts, each with their own pages. These are all excellent pages that potentially could rise in the rankings, if Santorum supporters were encouraged to start linking to them.
That’s not going to oust the SpreadingSantorum site, however. For any real success there, Santorum would need to be like McDonald’s, where years of launching site after site (mcdonalds.com, playatmcd.com, mcstate.com, aboutmcdonalds.com, happymeal.com, ronald.com) has managed to push anti-McDonald’s sites like mccruelty.com or mcspotlight.org to the second page. Santorum’s not as big as McDonald’s, nor does he have that much time.
There’s Always Saying Sorry
There is one thing that possibly might work to make Spreading Santorum disappear for his name. That would be a real rapprochement with the LBGT community. If Santorum were to have a real change of heart, then perhaps that community and those who support it might not feel they should link over to Spreading Santorum. Perhaps Savage would decide not to run the site at all. Perhaps Santorum might even be redefined once again, this time as something pleasant.
As someone with several close gay friends, who believes strongly in gay marriage (Rick, it’s about loving parents of any type, not just straight parents), who has two sons with a gay godfather (Hey, Greg, how’s gay Hollywood today?), I’d sure love to see that happen.
Postscript: There have been many updates to this story. See our Santorum’s Google Problem category for the latest articles.