Should Google associate Rick Santorum's name with anal sex?
Photograph by Andrew Burton/Getty Images,
Fresh off his virtual tie for first in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday night, Rick Santorum’s campaign has renewed momentum heading into next week’s New Hampshire primary. The former Pennsylvania senator’s recent political success hasn’t yet dislodged an alternate definition of santorum from the top of Google’s search results. Back in July, Chris Wilson assessed Santorum’s “Google problem” and investigated his chances to reclaim the top result from Dan Savage’s neologism. The original piece is reprinted below.
Until Rick Santorum declared in early June that he was running for president, his "Google problem" was little more than a case study in Internet karma. Eight years ago, after Santorum told the Associated Press that he had "a problem with homosexual acts," sex columnist Dan Savage launched a retaliatory campaign to name a sex act after the then-Pennsylvania senator. The winning entry in the define santorum contest was this: "the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."
This was just the beginning of the logomachy. Savage started a website, Spreading Santorum, devoted to the definition's proliferation, and it worked as intended. Enough people wrote about and linked to Spreading Santorum that, for the past several years, it has generally stood as the top search result for both "Santorum" and "Rick Santorum." It was a classic "Google bomb," the practice by which a disparaging page gets boosted in search results to debase the targeted person's name. And there was nothing Rick Santorum could do about it—everyone who searched for him would see his name associated with anal sex.
With Santorum back in the picture after a five-year absence from politics—he lost his bid for re-election in 2006—this web skirmish is suddenly the subject of serious news stories and campaigns by supporters to dethrone Savage's page from the top of the results. "What we can do as Christians is to fight back with a Google-bombing campaign of our own," wrote one ally on a page that has since been co-opted by the opposition. Savage has vowed to renew his own efforts in response. The battle over the true meaning of Santorum has begun, and the outcome will tell us a lot about Google's perception of what a search engine should be.
The only reason that Google bombs work is that the company's algorithms are imperfect. The results generated for a particular query are supposed to be organic—the pages most relevant to you, the searcher, based on a huge variety of factors. Those factors are both personal—your search history, what your friends are linking to on Twitter, where you live—and universal—how many pages link to a given site, the page's keywords, and so forth. In an ideal world, those results should not be subject to intentional manipulation, and Google goes to great lengths to prevent this sort of behavior. Most famous Google bombs, like the one that returned George W. Bush's official biography on a search for "miserable failure," are eventually defused when Google closes whatever loophole the bombers had exploited.
SpreadingSantorum.com, though, has managed to stay on top. For the past few years, Savage's site has not had legitimate competition from any Web page for top-Santorum-search-result honors. (The closest competitor: the Wikipedia page about the neologism.) The best estimates suggest that SpreadingSantorum.com has about six times as many incoming links as Rick Santorum's official website. One of the biggest myths about the Google search algorithm, however, is that it ranks pages primarily based on inbound linkage. While this was Google's founding principle, the site's algorithms are now far more complex. Most search engine experts will tell you that the importance of link proliferation has declined steadily over time—something Google employees will privately confirm in general terms.
The decreasing importance of inbound links means the "frothy mix" definition of santorum may soon lose its search primacy. Traditionally, the easiest way to set a Google bomb has been to encourage supporters to link to a particular page. With linking no longer as important, it's significantly harder to boost a page's ranking artificially. Furthermore, Google weighs the timeliness of content much more than it used to. This will probably reward Santorum the politician, who is now making news for non-anal-sex-related reasons. Even though Dan Savage has launched a new blog on SpreadingSantorum.com in an attempt to remain relevant, it's unlikely that he can compete with even the small trickle of news that Santorum's campaign will generate. As the primaries approach, the proportion of news about him that does not include sex acts will rise. That's why I predict that, within a few months, Rick Santorum will take back the top spot on search results for his name.
Is this a bad thing? Google co-founder Larry Page's vision of a perfect search engine is one that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want." It's hard to imagine that many people who search for "Rick Santorum" want to get Dan Savage's site. While I have little sympathy for Santorum, this is clearly a case in which Google is not working as intended. A more perfect search engine would not be so easily gulled.
At the same time, it's fair to say that SpreadingSantorum.com is something more than a Google bomb. It's a form of political protest—a campaign that has survived for eight years because lots of people believe that Santorum deserves to have his name dragged through the … not-so-palatable substance. When Roll Call asked Santorum about santorum, he characterized it as a hall of mirrors: "It's one guy. You know who it is. The Internet allows for this type of vulgarity to circulate." In this, he is dead wrong: If this were just the work of Dan Savage, Spreading Santorum would be nowhere near the top of the search results.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
Photograph of Dan Savage by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The Webby Awards.