Danny Sullivan offers a run-down of the most recent events on Search Engine Land. In case you’ve been too busy to watch campaign developments, I’ll start by saying don’t Google “santorum” or “romney” unless you really want to be grossed out. It’s worth studying what happened here, however, as an example of the power of links over time – and how that may be changing.
We’ll start with Santorum’s well-known story. Back when he was simply a senator, in 2003, Rick Santorum publicly compared gay sex to “man-on-dog” sex. This angered Dan Savage, a popular and controversial columnist in the GLBTQ community. He ran a contest to come up with a definition for the word “santorum.” I won’t tell you which definition won. I don’t need to, because Savage next set up a web page with that definition on it, SpreadingSantorum.com, and encouraged his fans to link to that page appropriately.
Over a relatively short period of time, this page became the first result to come up in Google for searches on the term “santorum.” Even today, with Rick Santorum’s campaign maintaining his websites, SpreadingSantorum.com is the first result to come up in Google for a search on “santorum,” right after a sponsored ad and a Google box that lists the results for U.S. Republican presidential primaries. Savage’s site even beats Wikipedia’s entry for Rick Santorum.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Santorum has become a regular joke on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the wildly popular comedy news and political commentary programs. Sullivan provides a summary of these moments, with clips from the shows going all the way back to 2006. Clearly, this politician’s problem didn’t start overnight, and it won’t disappear overnight, either.
Before we go on, however, it’s important to note that this is NOT a Google Bomb, despite some people in the media claiming it is. A Google Bomb happens when lots of people link to a particular page with anchor text that doesn’t itself appear anywhere on the page, thus causing it to rank high in the search results for that text. This is how former president George Bush’s biographical page on the White House’s website suddenly started ranking high for “miserable failure” a few years ago. Google fixed that problem algorithmically, by preventing pages from ranking for terms in their anchor text that aren’t on the page itself. The word “santorum” actually appears on the spreadingsantorum.com page, however…just as the word “romney” actually appears on the spreadingromney.com site.
Spreadingromney.com defines “romney” as a verb: “to defecate in terror.” Sullivan notes that the word “terror” is linked to a Huffington Post story posted in early January of this year. The story mentioned that in 1983, Romney strapped his Irish setter to the roof of his car and drove all the way to Canada – a 12-hour trip – during which time, the dog, well, defecated in fear. In response, when one of his sons on the trip reported the problem to him, Romney stopped the car, took the dog out of the carrier, hosed off both the dog and the car – and then put the dog back in the carrier and continued the trip. In 2007, Romney defended his actions, claiming that his dog loved riding in the carrier and would get up there all by himself.
To be fair, Romney’s Google problem isn’t quite as bad as Santorum’s. In a recent search on “romney,” SpreadingRomney.com ranked third in Google, behind the candidate’s own site and Wikipedia’s entry for him. But that’s still pretty noticeable – and quite high for a site that can’t be much more than a month old. Where is its mojo coming from?
Sullivan did some serious investigating, since Google no longer reveals any links just for the asking. The only helpful source he finds, Majestic Site Explorer from Majestic SEO, reports that SpreadingSantorum.com boasts 219 links from 67 unique websites. Which leaves him with a potentially disturbing question: “It only takes about 200 links to rank in the top results for a major politician’s name?”
Some might argue that this is a feature rather than a bug. If a new site bursts on the scene discussing a major politician during an election year, wouldn’t a search engine owe it to its users to put that information where they can see it? If that’s the case, then one might expect this site to sink quickly in the rankings unless it gets many more links – or adds lots of content.
You see, there are a number of differences between SpreadingRomney.com and SpreadingSantorum.com, but one of the biggest is that the latter has actually earned its high ranking. I’m not talking about the time the site has been live, or even the number of links. As Sullivan explains, “The Spreading Santorum site also has an associated blog that’s regularly updated with criticisms about Santorum based on news stories and recent events. There’s substance to it, rather than it just being a joke, as some perceive.”
And what about SpreadingRomney.com? Sullivan notes that it “touches on a serious issue, the treatment of animals, but there’s nothing further behind it. It has no historic legacy. It feels more like a successful joke on Romney than some type of political opposition.”
Google’s Panda update was supposed to prevent such “thin” sites so lacking in substance from ranking high. Sullivan thinks the sheer newness of the site might have prevented it from getting caught by the algorithm. I’ll believe this if the site isn’t still ranking on the first page for “romney” by the end of this month – assuming it hasn’t added significant content by that time to bring it more into conformity with what Google expects from high-ranking sites. In any case, both Santorum’s and Romney’s special problems with Google highlight the kinds of SEO-related issues political candidates – and anyone concerned about their own or their organization’s reputation – need to deal with now.