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Rick Santorum's Google problem

A fractured web presence and unified pranksters affect the presidential candidate's results.

With a near first-place finish in Iowa, Rick Santorum has a lot more name recognition going in to New Hampshire than many would have expected from him a few weeks ago. Many people who haven't been following the former Pennsylvania senator very closely may be unfamiliar with him and, given his recent success and fame, may be tempted to go to Google and try to find more about him by searching "Santorum."

The results may surprise. That's because the top search result is a site that defines the word "santorum" as a noun and describes it as the byproduct of a certain sexual act. The site is called "spreadingsantorum.com" and it was launched in 2003 by writer Dan Savage, who says he was motivated by then-Senator Santorum comparing homosexual sex to bestiality and child rape. Savage asked people to link to the site as much as possible to drive up its placement. It worked.

Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land says think of search results as an election, one in which Savage's site has been getting votes for years. Meanwhile, "Rick Santorum has not actually had his own official page for anywhere near that long. He had a page when he was the senator, which went away when he was no longer senator. On Wednesday, they took down the entire campaign website that was already showing up in Google and pushed everything over to a donation page, so it's as if he constantly moves around, and he's splitting up all the votes that he could possibly get."

So when someone links to a page, that's a vote. "Google as well as Bing, looks at links as a way of trying to determine what's relevant," Sullivan says. "So, the number of links pointing to a page can be important, and also what those links say, so for example, when you search for books on a search engine, you often times find Amazon because lots of people point to Amazon and they say the word book in or near the link. You don't find Amazon coming up when you search for cars because even though a lot of people link to it, they don't actually say cars in or near the link and so it doesn't become relevant."

Google has been unwilling to change the search results, says Sullivan, because Savage won fair and square. "If Google changes things like that, then they become prone to accusations of favoring a Republican candidate or a Democratic candidate. They also then get asked to change all sorts of other results, and so they prefer generally to keep hands off of these results and say look, we're just reflecting what the web is reflecting, and right now, the web is saying that there is this alternative definition of santorum, and it has actually been relevant to a lot of people and that is why we're ranking it number one."

But does an unexpected search result really matter all that much? You bet it does, says Micah Sifry of Tech President. "Google, Bing, Yahoo, they are the real entry points to help us find the information that we're looking for, every campaign really has to have a strategy for ensuring that they're doing well in organic search results."

The search engines, as well as reference sites like Wikipedia, can have a huge impact, says Sifry. "We hear too much about Facebook and Twitter and how many followers or how many tweets someone is getting. That's more chatter, but this is about shaping people's perceptions in a fundamental way."

Also in this program, the classic video game Flight Simulator is coming back and will be free. We argue which is better: flying a flight simulator or flying an actual airplane.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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