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Santorum asks Google to clean up search results for his name

John D. Sutter, CNN
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has asked Google to clean up the search results associated with his name.
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has asked Google to clean up the search results associated with his name.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Politico: Rick Santorum asks Google to change the search results for his name
  • A reference to a sex byproduct shows up high in search results for "santorum"
  • A sex columnist created a spoof site to draw searchers away from Santorum's page
  • Googe typically does not alter its search results because of content

(CNN) -- Former U.S. Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has a well-known Google problem.

For the uninitiated, if you Google Santorum's name, the first result you'll probably get is not his personal website but a fake definition of "santorum," a sexual byproduct that's a bit too graphic to talk about in detail here. (Of course, you can Google him and easily find out.)

We'll get into how that all happened in a second, but here's what's new: On Tuesday, the socially conservative politician lashed out at Google, saying the company could get rid of the sexual references to his name on the search results if it wanted to -- and perhaps would do so if he were a Democrat.

"I suspect if something was up there like that about Joe Biden, they'd get rid of it," he told Politico. "If you're a responsible business, you don't let things like that happen in your business that have an impact on the country."

He continued: "To have a business allow that type of filth to be purveyed through their website or through their system is something that they say they can't handle, but I suspect that's not true."

Santorum contacted Google and asked the company about the issue, Politico said.

In an e-mail to CNN, a Google spokeswoman said, "Google's search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Web. Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly. Once the webmaster takes the page down from the Web, it will be removed from Google's search results through our usual crawling process."

She added: "We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content and violations of our webmaster guidelines."

Santorum is just the latest to gripe at Google over how it ranks search results. The CEO of Yelp posted a blog Tuesday saying that Google purposefully ranks its own products -- like Google Places -- above its competitors.

"We believe Google has acted anti-competitively in at least two key ways: by misusing Yelp review content in their competing Places product and by favoring their own competing Places product in search results," Yelp's Jeremy Stoppelman wrote.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was scheduled to testify before Congress on Wednesday about similar antitrust complaints.

The lewd "santorum" definition popped up after the former senator compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press:

"In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality," he said. "That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."

That angered gay rights supporters, including gay podcast host and sex columnist Dan Savage, who launched a campaign for his listeners to redefine Santorum's name. Savage created a website to promote the winning definition (again, you'll have to search for that elsewhere), and enough bloggers linked to it that the spoof site eventually eclipsed Santorum's campaign website in search rankings.

Danny Sullivan, who writes at the blog SearchEngineLand, notes that Google has a history of being hands-off when it comes to these controversies, regardless of the politics or sensitivities involved:

"Google is loathe to touch its results in any way, shape or form. That's because if it does intervene in any way, there's some interest group that will immediately claim a bias. Way back in 2004, an anti-Jewish web site started ranking in Google's top results for 'Jew.'

"Despite Google co-founder Sergey Brin being Jewish and himself disgusted with the result, it stood. Intervention, when Google's ranking algorithms had spoken, was seen as harmful to user trust," Sullivan writes.

In December 2009, when racist images of first lady Michelle Obama popped to the top of Google search results, the company took a similar free-speech stance.

"We have a bias toward free expression," Google spokesman Scott Rubin said at the time. "That means that some ugly things will show up."

Still, Google has removed offensive content from searches, usually by making changes to how its overall search equations function.

In 2007, for example, a change to Google's search algorithm stopped the search term "miserable failure" from directing Internet users to pages about former president George W. Bush, according to SearchEngineLand.

It's worth noting that some of these Internet weirdnesses have shown up on other search engines, too, not just on Google.

What do you think about the Santorum situation? Should Google make changes? Or is the company right to stand by the way its equations rank Web pages against each other, by trying to judge their relevance?

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