As you probably know, if you Google the word “santorum,” the very first result will be an extremely offensive website created by the gay activist Dan Savage, who was responding several years ago to Rick Santorum’s disturbingly graphic opposition to homosexuality. (Weirdly, the term “google problem” now leads to the same sort of thing.)
Now that Santorum’s presidential campaign has gotten a sudden jolt of attention, the issue of Santorum and Google is being talked about once again. I’m still thinking this through. But aside from muttering “ewww,” I also believe Google is failing at its core search business by not doing something to move Savage’s prank down in its rankings.
Here’s why. The only reason you would have to be searching for information about Santorum is that you want to find out more about him. If you want to see Savage’s handiwork, you’re not searching for information — you just want to see what the fuss is all about, or you’re curious to see whether it’s still there. If the very first result you get is the Savage page, then Google has failed at its mission of providing you with useful, relevant information about your search term.
What to do about it? The problem, as I understand it, is that Google is loath to undertake any sort of editorial intervention with its search results. From time to time it changes its secret sauce in order to defeat those who are trying to game the system. It managed to eliminate a racist photo of Michelle Obama by rewriting its search algorithm, for instance. But the company can’t really fix the Santorum problem without reaching in and doing it by hand. (For some non-geeky technical background on the Santorum issue, see this New York Times story by Noam Cohen and this Politico item by Ben Smith.)
Well, what of it? Wikipedia has considerably more adult supervision than it did in its earliest days, and is a better research tool as a result. Most people also prefer an edited news site to a robotically assembled compilation like Google News.
I’m not calling for censorship. Savage’s site shouldn’t be disappeared. But it seems fairly obvious to me that if the first two or three (or five or six) Google results regarding “santorum” ought to be about, you know, Rick Santorum.
Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.