By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Thinking about Rick Santorum’s Google problem

Rick Santorum

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.

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  1. Stephen Stein

    Can Santorum sue Google for defamation and succeed? If this were an on-line encyclopedia, I’d say he had a case. (I am not a lawyer.)

    As funny as it might be to some, Google should fix this, but that would certainly open a can of worms. Having to fix it in response to a court order might be a less disruptive solution for Google.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Stephen: I’m horrified. Seems to me that would be the worst of all possible outcomes. But your question about a libel suit is a great one, and I don’t know the answer. Seems to me that it’s probably covered by the libel exemption for third-party online content.

  2. Adam Riglian

    Dan Savage and the many people who’ve created inbound links to his website that allowed it to become the top result for “Santorum” have played by Google’s rules and done nothing wrong. Why penalize them?

    I’d also argue that when you search Santorum and come upon Savage’s site, you are learning something about him – his bigoted views towards homosexuality.

    If Google made an exception and broke it’s own rules this time, what would it lead to? What are the consequences or negative outcomes that could come from it?

  3. Have to respectfully disagree Dan. Disgusting as it is, I’m much more interested in reading Dan Savage’s definition of “Santorum” than any of the extremely bigoted, ignorant and backwards opinions of the candidate by the same name.

    The clicks seem to agree with me, and thus Google’s algorithm ranks Savage’s definition higher. Isn’t that the crux of search engine results?

    Of course I’m being a little bit obtuse, but Santorum must be kept off the White House lawn by whatever means necessary.


  4. It’s not only Google. I just rang a Bing search on “Santorum” and the Savage-created definition was the third result. Yes, I know Bing took some liberties and uses a lot of Google’s algorithms, but I’m guessing other search engines would have similar issues too. Should they all fix it?

    When I first heard this story last year, my initial response was that maybe Savage went too far. And then I read what Santorum said. Let’s just say I’m not fretting too much.

  5. And a lawsuit?!? I just consulted my in-house attorney, aka my husband, and he scoffed at the notion. I hate Google, but they’re not doing anything malicious. Savage lampooned Santorum and it got picked up. Are we going to sue popular cartoonists?

  6. Andrew Langmead

    Should the search for Tiananmen Square give you results about the 1989 protests? Or about the monument to the people’s heroes, etc?

    The website that Dan Savage created isn’t just schoolyard teasing. It is a political protest. The content of the site is full of news articles about the candidate, video clips of him speaking on issues like abortion, race (, DADT (, etc.

    This is valid information about the candidate, just not packaged in the way the candidate wants. He’d probably like to minimize his more conservative message when communicating to a centrist or left leaning audience. Sites like these won’t let him.

  7. Jim Morrison

    Putting yourself and your ideas out there and tossing your hat in the ring to become the leader of the free world invites comment. Savage and his savages are simply engaging in free speech, no? You can still find the candidate online if you’re looking for him.

  8. Stephen Stein

    @Dan – I’m unclear what you’re horrified at. I think we agree that the search results “should” be different. Perhaps it would be horrible if Google were forced to do it by the state (and yes, that sounds icky to me too), but how else can Santorum get that result?

    If Google were threatened by market forces to clean up its results, this would be a vastly better solution. But Yahoo and Bing also give this as the top non-news result.

    Savage has been thorough – I’ll give him that.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: Sorry to be unclear. I would be horrified at the prospect of the courts ordering Google to diddle with its search results.

  9. Coincidentally, I read a post on Towleroad (a glbt blog) this morning about this same issue.

    The takeaway being that Santorum has not curated his own online presence to create an alternative for Google to rank. He’s a former Senator, he’s written a book, he’s running for President, he has no end of Conservative opinion it seems he should want to be spewing like santorum across the internets, but he hasn’t. So Savage’s site stays at the top of the rankings.

  10. Putting in the full “Rick Santorum” relegates Savage’s entry to fourth (or third, if you wish to ignore the paid ad that tops the page.) I would think that most folks doing a search might use the full name, so as to eliminate any results not for the particular Santorum they’re investigating (as few as those other results might be, given the not-very-common name.) So, the problem is not so severe as to need legal correction, IMVHO.

  11. Christian Avard

    FYI, I just googled Rick Santorum and the very first result is the official campaign site. The other one, which shall remain nameless, was bumped down to the second Google result.

  12. Brad Deltan

    For someone who has such a (justifiably) black and white view of the First Amendment…I find this post exceptionally out of character, Dan.

    Just because you don’t like what Savage did, doesn’t mean that Google is wrong. None of us know exactly how Google’s algorithm works, so for all we know, Savage’s santorum site actually *IS* more “popular” than Rick Santorum’s site.

    In fact, there’s direct evidence that this is as much Rick Santorum’s “fault” as it is Savage’s; Santorum has done a terrible job of SEO with his site.

    • Dan Kennedy

      “For someone who has such a (justifiably) black and white view of the First Amendment…I find this post exceptionally out of character, Dan.”

      Really, @Brad? How? I’ve already expressed my horror at the idea of Google’s facing legal sanctions. And I’ve argued that this represents a business failure on Google’s part. Please explain where the First Amendment enters into it.

      As for your final point, I’m reminded of the folks who wagged their finger at John Siegenthaler for not knowing that a Wikipedia entry made false claims about him. It’s Santorum’s fault for not becoming (or hiring) an SEO expert? Please.

  13. Adam Riglian

    If I Google my name (I realize this doesn’t work for people who don’t have unique names) I don’t like that the Myspace page I had in high school shows up before any of my professional work.

    Does Google owe it to me to put my best foot forward? If I ran for office, would they?

  14. Larz Neilson

    I was thinking of filing legislation requiring Poseidon to hold back the Atlantic Ocean to low-tide levels. Oh, and they could slip in a rider to make Santorum jokes go away. But then I thought, darn — wrong god!

  15. Adam Riglian

    Maybe Myspace is a bad example because I have control over it, but you get the gist.

    @Dan – In thinking about this, I’m drawn back to the whole Montana blogger affair. Not the lawsuit or bloggers-aren’t-journalists part, but to what she actually did.

    Using fairly obvious SEO techniques, she got her various posts and blogs to appear as the top 10 or 15 (forget the actual number) results for a search term, in this case a person from a financial institutions name. Her techniques were fairly obvious and even more transparent on the site she created about David Carr of the NYT (things like repeatedly using the full name, excessive linking, etc.)

    In that sense, if the executive argued with Google that people searching his name are looking for his company, not this blog, would he have a point? And if not, how is the Santorum thing really all that different?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Adam: I’m going to assume you’re not talking about the law (the two cases have basically nothing in common for reasons that I won’t get into unless you want me to), but, rather, the SEO issues.

      And yes, I would say that the two cases are identical. In each case, Google is not providing useful, relevant information in response to search terms. If gaming the system becomes widespread enough, then Google (and Bing, etc.) will become less useful and thus less valuable from a business point of view.

      When Google found a way to fix this, as they did with the racist Michelle Obama photo, they acted. So they understand the problem. They just don’t know what to do about it in every instance. Or they don’t care because it’s Rick Santorum, huh, huh, huh.

  16. Adam Riglian

    Correct, I am not talking about the law part of the blogger case, just the SEO.

    So, I guess my question is if Dan Savage replaces the gross definition with a well-reasoned column about why he finds Santorum reprehensible, citing Santorum’s positions and how they will affect a community that Savage cares about, is it the same?

    I guess I’m wondering whether people are upset that the system is being gamed (and it is a problem, I’ll admit that) or that the Santorum definition is disgusting and making TV pundits squirm trying to explain why it’s happening. I don’t quite buy the line of thinking that says people won’t be able to find out about Santorum because something else is first in the results (not putting those words in your mouth, but I’ve heard it said).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Adam: Savage created a gross and vicious piece of mockery. That’s fine. It’s the SEO gaming I object to. Now, if Savage did what you’re suggesting, and he still engaged in SEO gaming so that it was the first or second thing people saw, well, the gaming is still problematic, but I don’t think anyone could reasonably object because searchers would be finding useful information about Santorum. Still, the problem with argument by analogy is that you can never re-create the exact conditions on which the argument was originally based. “If this, then that” is rarely true.

  17. Heather Greene

    Really think this whole “ranking on google” is a bit overhyped since it’s a matter of half-an-inch up or down. It’s a safe bet that ex-Sen. Santorum is far from the only public figure or business that has a “google problem.” It’s just that many aren’t as funny.

    The world can be such a harsh and gloomy place sometimes. If nothing else, this “google problem” for a guy who isn’t really that famous (outside of this 15 minutes) gives a laugh. Why ruin it?

  18. Adam Riglian

    Fair enough. And I agree, it is silly of me to try and create hypotheticals. I guess my ultimate concern is not really related to Santorum or the Montana blogger, but to how SEO is becoming an increasingly dominant concept.

    I worry about what happens when, in that endless effort to compete, gaming the system comes to online media (not that it necessarily hasn’t already).

    That said, Savage is playing by the rules Google outlined. To fix the problem by simply shuffling him down the list is a mistake in my opinion. It would be better to change the rules.

  19. Brad Deltan

    Really, @Brad? How? I’ve already expressed my horror at the idea of Google’s facing legal sanctions. And I’ve argued that this represents a business failure on Google’s part. Please explain where the First Amendment enters into it.

    I quote the end of your post: “I’m not calling for censorship … But it seems …”

    More than once, IIRC, you’ve said that whenever someone says “I’m not calling for censorship” that means they’re really calling for censorship.

    It’s Santorum’s fault for not becoming (or hiring) an SEO expert?

    In a word: YES. The guy’s a PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE for God’s sake!! If he can’t handle (or hire someone who can) the most basic level of image management/branding…that being SEO…then how can we possibly expect him to handle foreign diplomacy? Or even domestic diplomacy for that matter?

    Furthermore, Google created a relatively level playing field. As I said, we don’t know what the algorithm is but we know enough about it to know that SEO is possible, and multiple links have been posted about how Santorum has failed to perform even the most basic SEO. So the bottom line is that Savage is better at the game than Santorum is. Does that mean Google should bribe the ref to make Santorum win?

    Let’s put it this way: if Romney now goes out and spends a lot of time and effort to buy really clever and vicious ads on Fox News that say Santorum is a terrible man who is alleged to beat his wife and kick his dog…and Santorum pretty much just ignores the ads…would you blame Fox News and say that Fox News should stop running the ads? No – you’d say that Santorum needs to somehow respond to the ads. Why would you say anything different about Google and “santorum”?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Brad: I’m not calling for censorship, but — oh, look! I’m not calling for censorship! I’m calling on Google to fix its business model. You’re right. When someone says, “I’m not calling for censorship, but …”, it is all too often followed by a call for censorship. I guess I’m the exception, eh?

  20. Jim Morrison

    I think this conversation is simply designed to distract people from Santorum’s sweater vest problem.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jim: Hah! You also can’t help but wonder if the Savage site takes attention away from Santorum’s own words about “man on dog” sex.

  21. Mike Benedict

    Rick Santorum’s biggest problem isn’t Google, it’s Rick Santorum.

  22. Mike Benedict

    @Adam: Which would you prefer as the dominant concept: SEO, or money? Savage proved that with a little ingenuity and about $39 for the domain name, he could bring down a US Senator.

  23. Andrew Langmead

    I don’t think of this simply in terms of “SEO gaming”. The links to the site are a large group of people who disagree with Rick Santorum’s positions posting about where they disagree with the candidate. If you search on Google for which sites link to the site Dan Savage created, only about 1/10 of them are from the paper Savage writes for. (As a total number of results, it was smaller than I thought only shows 364 pages that link to the site.)

    If you look past the neologism, can you think of another site that aggregates as much information on a single GOP candidate from such a wide range of sources? A huge amount of relevant content isn’t just an SEO trick, its a successful search result. It isn’t that much different than someone who is obsessed with Yo-Yos and makes a site linking to as much information as they can find about them. (the history of yo-yos, youtube clips of yo-yo ads, links to Duncan’s SEC financials, news articles that passingly mention yo-yo imports, etc.) It is possible that the same aspects of the search algorithm that finds this fanatical yo-yo content useful and raise its visibility is what is finding the santorum site and raising it.

    Google says they make about 500 changes to their search algorithm each year (“How Google makes improvements to its search algorithm” they get quantitative data on how the change affects all searches. Although I’m sure Google could their algorithm for this case (either change it for just this search word, or change the algorithm in the general case so it effects this result) it seems unlikely. Ben&Jerry’s could start selling a line of ball point pens. Google’s technology infrastructure seems to be mostly built collecting behavioral data and using it predict useful results. (Not just in search; maps, adsense, youtube, etc. All seem to use aggregated behavioral data.)

    I don’t think Savage’s santorum site is there because Google doesn’t care. Google seems to be much to data driven ignore a problem for ideological reasons. (A few years back Tim O’Reilly relates an anecdote about a Google engineering manager Jon Orwant ( Jon said that if Google ran a restaurant there would be a camera in the back photographing every plate that came back for analysis of what people liked and didn’t. Of course as a counterpoint to Jon, that might not produce the best food, but produce the least bad food.

  24. C.E. Stead

    DK – the hypocricy of your ‘any means necessary’ Stop Santorum commenters is exposed by the fact that none of them had a problem with intervention to protect Michele Obama. Tech differences (that none of us fully comprehend aside) aside, the fact is that they were willing to intervene on her behalf, and not on his.

    If SEO manipulation caused an Obama search to go to a birther website, would you all be so blase about the ‘market forces’ of the internet, or would you all be howling for more specilized protective action for a progressive? Please note – this isn’t actually about the truth or falsehood of the ‘information’ provided, but the redirection for political ends.

  25. Heather Greene

    I don’t think Savage’s site takes away from the whole “man on dog” stuff. You can call it a “a gross and vicious piece of mockery,” but safe bet Savage would tell you Santorum’s own public statements on homosexuals are actually gross and vicious. Santorum is a bigot and his views are beyond the pale and we don’t live in a media age where even a “Santorum is a bigot towards homosexuals” website getting a #1 ranking on Google would get anywhere near the attention as Savage’s “prank.” His “prank” totally reminds the public (and the press) that Santorum is a bigot.

  26. Andrew Langmead

    @CE You make it sound like Google directly intervened in the rankings for Michelle Obama’s picture. They say they did not. They said they made a change to the image search so that overall it returned better results, and those results found better Michelle Obama photos and reduced the ranking for the offensive one.

    I don’t know what tweak they made (could have been preferring photos from higher ranking sites. Could have been preferring images that programatically seemed less manipulated.) but the change that made a net improvements in results.

  27. Sam Osborne

    In March of last year the Boston Globe quoted Rick Santorum telling a group of right-wing Catholics that he was “frankly appalled” that America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” In characterization, Santorum went further by saying “That was a radical statement,” and did “great damage.” And Santorum concluded, “We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process.”

    Santorum may insist that he is a better Catholic then I am and a better man to be president than John F. Kennedy, but just as freely I view him as a religious bigot that neither speaks for me in matters or conscience nor political affairs. And further, were he to gain the power of the presidency by successfully painting the people’s consideration with his brand of religious fanaticism, it would do “great damage” to our land.

    And frankly, in words of comparative disparagement that Lloyd Bentsen directed at Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice-presidential debate, “Rick Santorum, you’re no John F. Kennedy.”

  28. C.E. Stead

    @Andrew – Define the difference between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ intervention for me. If they were able to tweak the search results to produce a better result for the First Lady, they could also tweak the search results to redirect a ‘Santorum’ search to a ‘Rick Santorum’ search, as Suldog described.

    They have not chosen to do so.

    Again – it’s your acceptance of the treatment of Santorum becasue you don’t like him that makes you hypocrites. It’s like the new detention protocols – it’s OK because Obama won’t use them, but you may want to get back to me when President Cheney makes the decision.

  29. Andrew Langmead

    @CE They didn’t “tweak the search results to produce a better result for the First Lady”, so “direct” or “indirect” aren’t accurate terms as there was no “intervention”. They made a change (as regularly do) that found that produced measurably better image search results and as part of that change a picture that was highly ranked (by the algorithm) but not useful by their users (by seen by people’s interaction with the search results.)

    From a search algorithm perspective, the Michelle Obama wasn’t ranked down because it was offensive; it was ranked lower because it wasn’t one that people want. Google’s youtube video that I linked to above has some information on how the test out improvements to their rankings.

    I’d agree that Google should view as evidence of flaws in their rankings. What might make this harder to fix with a general purpose solution is it has many elements of a “good” search result.

    1. When it comes up in the result set, many people often click on it. That may indicate to Google that it people find it a good result.

    2. When people click on it, many people don’t frequently go back to the search results and pick something else. (If they did, that would imply that it was a bad search result.)

    3. The site has been around for a long time (This would imply that an audience regularly finds it useful)

    4. The site is updated frequently. (this implies useful content.)

    5. It seems to be aggregating sites that many people find popular. (when we started this conversation last week, the top articles were discussing articles by,, Andrew Sullivan, CurrentTV, and Jon Stewert, all covering the subject of the site.)

    6. The site isn’t poorly written (which might decrease its value as a search result.)

    7. The site has a lot of video (people tend to stay on a site with videos, so that would make it seem like a useful search result)

    Besides the fact that the site was started in anger, it has a lot of the hallmarks good search result. Maybe is like a malignant cell that the body can’t differentiate from a good cell.

    Its funny that you bring in a comparison to the NDAA’s detention provisions, because I see it in the reverse. I see Google’s current stance of not changing search results for a specific situation similar to not allowing detention without cause. I see a Google that will adjust their rules for one party (like Rick Santorum) that feels injured similar to a policy that allows detention without charge. (I’m not saying search results are similar to military detention. The comparison I’m trying to make is that a change in search results just for Santorum is based on an individual or group decision. Your NDAA under president Cheney is an individual’s decision)

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