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Rick Santorum's Search Engine PR Nightmare

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has a Google problem (and a Bing problem, and a Yahoo problem, etc.). When you do a search for his last name, instead of finding his website, or a wiki article about him, or maybe some news results about him, you get a number of pages that redefine his name to mean something that I can’t reproduce on a work-safe blog page. Just trust me on that. Yeah, I know you’re going to go google it anyways.

But I’m not here to talk about what happened or why it happened (this has been covered very well in a number of other places). I want to talk about how the redefinition came to dominate the search engine results (SERPS) and what a person or a company can do to prevent this from happening to them.

So how did the redefinition succeed? There are basically two reasons: Time and Volume. The redefinition of Santorum has been around the web since 2003. In those 8 years, websites talking about this new meaning have been aging like a good wine. Search engines care about how long a website has been around. If you’ve been around for a long time you’re likely to be reliable and unlikely to be a scam. So Google gives you points.

And in those years, these pages have garnered a large volume of links. The main site redefining Santorum has over 3.5 times the number of inbound links that Santorum’s official presidential campaign site has. Each of those inbound links is a “vote” that says this page is relevant and should show up in search results. So Santorum has a lot of ground to cover to try and catch up with these older sites.

If, no offense to Santorum, he had been a more popular politician with a ground swell of support that generated lots of links, his problem would not be this bad. If he had been in the sort of politician that stayed in the public eye and generated a lot of news stories that could link to his website this would have help as well. But instead, these sites were generating links and aging while Santorum was doing nothing. This put him firmly behind the 8-ball.

So what could he have done to prevent this problem? And, by extension, what can other brands do to keep this sort of thing from happening to them?

The easiest and most important thing to do is to stay in front of the problem. Most companies won’t be facing a popular upswell designed to cause this sort of PR disaster, but in industries that face scam accusations, the industry/brand name + scam search phrase can get really popular. So put up a page that addresses these concerns before it becomes a serious problem. Fighting that uphill battle can be near-impossible.

Secondly. in all the places search engines look for signals: title tag, metadescription, h1 tag, use it in the copy, and build links to the page using “scam”. All of those things tell search engines that when someone looks for industry/brand name + scam they should find your page instead of someone else’s page. It lets you control the message and prevents someone else from being the top result. Being proactive can solve a lot of the problems.

Lastly, should search engines censor their results when something like this happens? This becomes a really tricky issue. Search engines DO censor results for things that go into illegal activities, but deriding a politician or a brand isn’t illegal, and as soon as they do start making changes to search engine results they’re going to get calls from everyone who’s dealing with these issues to make changes so that they don’t have to deal with the fact that people don’t like them. This causes the second problem, if Google starts censoring results, why should anyone trust the results that they get? The results can be tampered with, or bought, etc. in ways that means the results aren’t trustworthy. And all search engines have, really, is a trust that they’re showing you the best results for what you want.

Do you think that Google should alter the algorithm so that Rick Santorum doesn’t have to deal with his PR problem? Do you want Google to get rid people calling your industry a scam? Let me know what you think.