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In Politics, Google Is a Weapon


Seattle columnist Dan Savage initiated a meme with Spreading-Santorum.com

Photograph by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Seattle columnist Dan Savage initiated a meme with Spreading-Santorum.com

If you think you want to be President someday, there’s a simple step you can take now to help your chances. Go to a Web registrar like GoDaddy. Search for the domain name that consists of your last name preceded by the word “spreading.” If it’s available, buy it. If it’s not, hope that the person who already owns it shares your political views.

The “spreading” meme—started as a way to humiliate then-Senator Rick Santorum for his view on gay marriage—is itself spreading. Google “Mitt Romney” and among the top results is spreadingromney.com, a site that equates the candidate’s name with the act of soiling one’s breeches. (The exact rank depends on factors including a user’s browsing history.) Over at spreadinggingrich.com, a retired engineer outside Seattle is holding a contest to define a new word deriding the former Speaker of the House. “If more of these sites show up, Google (GOOG) will have to look at it,” says Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the industry blog SearchEngineLand. “It gives the impression that people can do whatever they want to Google search results.”

In 2003 columnist and gay-rights activist Dan Savage created spreadingsantorum.com, which defines “santorum” in a particularly vulgar way. He enlisted supporters to link to his creation, boosting its Google ranking over time. When 28-year-old Web developer and DJ Jack Shepler created spreadingromney.com on Jan. 10 to mock the candidate for once strapping his dog to the roof of a car on a family trip to Canada, Shepler simply shared the link through sites such as Facebook. The site has received relatively little traffic—about 230,000 page views in total, Shepler says. One reason it moved to the top of search rankings is that word spread quickly through social media, and a mention on The Rachel Maddow Show increased the momentum. The site has attracted a fair amount of attention both on TV and online, and Google’s algorithmic rankings are reflecting that, says a Google spokesman who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment.

Sullivan says spreadingromney.com gets top billing also in part because of the suddenness of the burst of attention. It could slip down the results page as that attention wanes. The Google algorithm essentially asks, “You were the new kid on the block; are you still selling a lot of albums?” says Sullivan. “If you’re not getting attention, you’re not going to get that boost.”

Google has responded to public pressure at least once before. In the mid-2000s, pranksters took up “Google bombing,” a method of linking a target with a derogatory search phrase—such as making George W. Bush’s bio the first result when the words “miserable failure” were Googled. The search company changed its algorithm in 2007 to defuse most Google bombs.

Supporters of Ron Paul took action preemptively, registering sites to protect their would-be President. Dave Rosenberg snagged spreadingpaul.com in mid-January as the Romney attack gained steam. “I wanted to grab it to make sure nothing unsavory happened with it,” says Rosenberg, a Nashville Web developer. “For the $10 it costs to grab a domain name, it was certainly worth it.”

The bottom line: If more sites attacking Presidential candidates gain notoriety, Google may be forced to alter its algorithm, as it did in 2007.

Sheridan_190
Sheridan is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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