When SEO turns against you: Rick Santorum’s Google problem

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Being the top result of a Google search results page is a big deal: It’s been estimated that the top result gets over a third of all clicks, plummeting to almost nothing (six percent) by position five. Because this top spot is so valuable, brands spend a lot of time and money trying to make sure that their website can claim it. But sometimes, just sometimes, this race to the top can yield some rather amusing — or terrifying — results. Just ask Rick Santorum, a current candidate in the U.S. presidential race and the victim of one of the most successful satirical SEO campaigns in history.

Santorum’s Google problems started back in 2003, when he made a number of anti-homosexual comments (equating homosexuality with paedophilia and bestiality) in an interview with the Associated Press during his last presidential run. Dan Savage, a popular online gay activist and sex columnist, responded with a campaign to redefine the meaning of Santorum’s last name. On his popular blog, Savage Love, he asked his readers to suggest definitions for the word to “memorialise the Santorum scandal… by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.” The definition that won was… oh, I can’t even say it. Just Google it. But not if you’re squeamish.

Savage then begged as many of his friends and supporters as possible to link to the new definition, ensuring that it rocketed right up to that valuable top spot in the search engines, so that more people click on that than Santorum’s own website. There can be no doubt that the association has caused substantial damage to his reputation, specifically because Santorum is so well known as a strict social conservative.

The problem for Santorum is that the issue has been just as sticky as… well, the new definition of his name. Eight years later and Santorum is again running for President in the U.S., and he’s still trying to rid himself of that search result. Savage’s spreadingsantorum.com website still outranks his own, even today, on both Bing and Google.

Then, earlier this year, Savage issued a new threat to Santorum — warning that if he continued to campaign on an anti-gay platform, Savage would run a second campaign to redefine the name “Rick” as well (he has decided on a new definition, and it also ain’t pretty). For Santorum, this was the last straw, and in September this year he approached Google itself to plead with them to help clean up his search results.

So what did Google do? Absolutely nothing.

Google has always had an explicit policy of refusing to take sides in a case like this. If it started removing search results that individuals found offensive, it would quickly collapse down a slippery slope into non-objectivity. It doesn’t matter how much Santorum’s feelings might have been hurt; Google won’t remove it unless it’s illegal content or it’s violating its own webmaster guidelines. As a Google spokesperson told news broadcaster CNN in response to Santorum’s complaint, “Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Web,” and if people want results to disappear, they need to remove the actual websites themselves. “Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly. Once the webmaster takes the page down from the Web, it will be removed from Google’s search results through our usual crawling process.”

Santorum is unimpressed. In a recent interview with the website Politico, he said: “To have a business allow that type of filth to be purveyed through their Web site or through their system is something that they say they can’t handle, but I suspect that’s not true.”

Essentially, the reason that Google won’t remove the page is that it’s not quite – as has been asserted – the form of Google policy violation called a Google Bomb. A Google Bomb is where a number of people co-ordinate to try to game the search engine algorithm, usually by creating a lot of links, to make an unrelated site come up as the top result when a particular search phrase is used. This is often used to make a satirical point, such as in 1999 when searching for “more evil than Satan himself” would display Microsoft’s website as the top result, and in 2004 when “failure” or “miserable failure” would bring up the George W. Bush biography website. Google has taken a number of steps, in the continual refining of its algorithm, to ensure that its platform is not gamed in this way. To make sure that people keep trusting its search engine, it has to make sure that it keeps delivering the most useful results to its users.

In this case, however, Savage is not driving unrelated keywords to his website — he’s actually created a successful new definition of the word, so links directing to the spreadingsantorum.com site are perfectly legitimate, at least as far as Google are concerned. And Savage’s site has garnered a lot of those very valuable links: Open Site Explorer estimates that he has around 8 500 inbound links to Santorum’s 700. It’s not so much a Google Bomb as it is a Reputation Bomb; Santorum’s problem lies not in how Google works, but in how people think of him.

The only thing Santorum could really do to reclaim the top spot would be to create more compelling content on his own site than Savage is creating on his. He would need to become more talkable than the prank. The chance of that happening anytime soon, when there is such a strong web-savvy contingent backing Savage, is slim. Or, of course, Santorum could convince Savage himself to remove the site, which Savage has agreed to do if Santorum donates US$5 million to a legal group advocating same-sex marriages in America.

For brands and celebrities, Santorum’s situation could be frightening. It’s the perfect illustration of the power of organised, passionate advocates who understand how the internet works and how to use it to make a point. There are a dozen great case studies of how unsavoury search results have haunted organisations for years, degrading reputation a little bit more every time someone searches for them. It could happen to anyone, and the white knight Google will not come to your rescue if it does.

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