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Rick Santorum's 'Google problem' means ad space for rivals

January 07, 2012|By Kim Geiger and Robin Abcarian
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke )

It’s no secret that in Google land, Rick Santorum’s last name produces an embarrassing search result aimed at ridiculing the former Pennsylvania senator for his objection to homosexuality.

The nearly decade-old prank -- launched by columnist Dan Savage and euphemistically referred to as Santorum’s “Google problem” – remains a top result in search engines, even as Santorum rides a wave of newfound popularity.

And now it appears that the pesky webpage – let’s refer to it as the “definition” – is getting a boost, albeit unintentional, from Santorum’s rivals.

As reported recently by Buzzfeed and Slate, an official ad from Mitt Romney’s campaign has appeared repeatedly on the definition page. The Romney campaign insists that the ad was not targeted for that particular page. The campaign’s Internet ads “target the user, not the site,” as one Romney aide put it.

Google declined to discuss the process it used to place Romney’s ads.

Still, news of the ads has sparked a larger debate: Why, after nine years, hasn’t the definition page gone away (or at least moved down the queue)?

One possible explanation comes from Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, a website that covers the search engine industry.

In a recent post, Sullivan says Santorum has been “literally playing hide-and-seek” with search engines, failing to direct traffic away from the definition page. After months of campaigning for president, it seems Santorum’s web team failed to embrace the SEO – search engine optimization – techniques that could potentially send readers to Santorum’s own campaign page, thus pushing the definition page out of first place.

Instead, as Santorum came within eight votes of winning the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, Googlers searching “Santorum” were presented, as usual, with the definition page at the top of the list.

Santorum says he thinks Google should take the site down.

“I think it shows the duplicitousness of both the people who say they are advocating tolerance as well as those who say they are, quote, unquote, neutral when it comes to their technology,” Santorum said in September during an interview over lunch at a Chili’s restaurant in Anderson, S.C. “Technology is not neutral, and frankly can never be neutral. And those who advocate for tolerance tend, in my mind, to be the least tolerant.”

For his part, Savage told Current TV’s Keith Olbermann that he thinks the definition page “may have hurt” Santorum in Iowa, but noted that after all these years, the page has gained an identity of its own.

“I’m getting letters from people who think that the neologism came first, that this was actually what Santorum meant and that Santorum was burdened with this unfortunate last name,” he said.

kim.geiger@latimes.com

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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