Santorum's 'Google problem' isn't Google's problem

February 10, 2012: 11:14 AM ET

Charges by the GOP candidate that the search giant is discriminating against him should be taken with a heavy dose of salt.

rick_santorumFORTUNE -- First, a clarification is in order. The fact that searching for "santorum" puts the profane, anti-Rick Santorum site SpreadingSantorum at the top of Google's search results is not an example of a "Google bomb," despite the widespread use of that term to describe the result.

Why does it matter? Because it plays into the question of whether Google (GOOG) should do something to change the results of the search, as Santorum and his supporters have long demanded. A Google bomb is when a large number of people link a phrase -- usually insulting -- to a Web site that belongs to or is associated with the person or institution they're trying to insult. This happened when the phrase "miserable failure" was widely linked to President George W. Bush's biography on the White House's Web site during the 2004 campaign. It remained among the top Google returns until 2007, when Google changed its algorithm. There were lots of other examples of Google bombs around that time.

Because Google "fixed" that problem, Santorum's supporters say, Google should "fix" the SpreadingSantorum problem, too. But it's not the same problem. Google bombs skewed reality by linking irrelevant search terms to their targets' pages. Few people searching on "miserable failure" were really looking for Bush's bio, and if they were, they would have added his name to the search and come up with relevant results. When Google fixed the problem, it improved its search function by returning more relevant results -- and, crucially, it didn't do this just to disarm the "miserable failure" bomb, but to forestall all such pranks.

SpreadingSantorum, on the other hand, is a page created by someone (writer Dan Savage) about Rick Santorum. It might be offensive, but it's relevant. It's a perfectly legitimate Web page. Savage and the people who linked to the page -- thereby helping it reach the top of search results -- used no algorithm-thwarting trickery to climb up the Google ranks. It's a popular Web page, and it lands at the top for the same reasons that Starbucks.com (SBUX) lands at the top for a search on "coffee."

Another clarification is in order. Santorum's "Google problem" isn't really a Google problem, it's a search problem, as Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan noted this week in the wake of Santorum's primary victories. Google's main competitor, Microsoft's Bing (MSFT), yields the same result. Santorum's supporters have alleged that political bias is the reason for Google's failure to tweak its algorithm to push the foul page further down in the results. This is nonsense. If Google did employ such a tweak, that would make it subject to such a charge, especially if SpreadingSantorum were the only page affected by the change. Google changes its algorithm as a policy matter, to address widepread problems with its search function, not to appease people who complain about a specific result. By staying hands-off, Google is conforming to its mission to keep its results "organic" and "relevant" -- that is, to represent the Web, to the highest degree possible, as it really exists.

The problem is, that's not an easy task, and Google filters results all the time. Usually, though, it's to thwart people who are trying to game the search engine for commercial gain: for example, spammers and their close cousins, content mills, that implement various SEO tricks to push their pages higher in the results than they otherwise would be. If Google and other search engines didn't engineer their algorithms to screen out the garbage, a search on "plumbers" might force users to scroll past page after page of porn and Forex trading tips before finding their desired pages.

As offensive as it might be, SpreadingSantorum amounts to political discourse, and since it made its way to the top of Google's results through entirely legitimate means, Google can't -- or anyway, shouldn't -- do anything about it. After all, the site is a response to the highly offensive things Santorum himself has said about gays -- comparing homosexuality to bestiality, for example.

Before Google changed its algorithm to dismantle the Google bombs, it had placed a note at the top of the page of results for "miserable failure," linking to the company's explanation for why the search brought up Bush's bio. It does a similar thing today for searches that push offensive material to the top. For instance, a search on "Jews" brings up, in the No. 2 position, an anti-Semitic site run, we must assume, by knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers.

Sullivan -- though he rightly pins the blame for the situation on Santorum himself -- argues that Google should do a similar thing in this case. Maybe so, and as long as it doesn't mess with legitimate search results, it seems harmless enough. Except that the question then becomes: where does Google draw the line? This is the same problem with Evgeny Morozov's recent proposal that Google should "flag" sites that might be spreading misinformation about vaccines or climate disruption. To add disclaimers to every result that might be controversial or offensive, Google and Bing would have to employ whole teams of people devoted to just that task. They would have to decide what is "offensive" and "dangerous," and of course not everybody always agrees on when those terms are apt.

For example, if Google were to protect Santorum from SpreadingSantorum, would it also have to protect him from another highly offensive term associated with his name? After all, "Santorum" is the very first word in the very first result that comes up for a search on the phrase "man on dog" -- a phrase uttered by Santorum himself to characterize homosexuals, which was what started this whole mess to begin with.

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