Rick Santorum has been working hard this week to capitalize on his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, trying to convince Republicans in New Hampshire that he is presidential material. One thing he's not encouraging possible supporters to do: Google him.
That's because if they do, one of the top results is a scatological and sexual site called SpreadingSantorum.com. It's got a big brown blotch on it — and we can't say more than that. It's a political stunt staged by columnist and gay-rights activist Dan Savage, who says he was outraged by an interview Santorum did in 2003 when he was still a senator from Pennsylvania.
"He argued that birth control should be illegal and that states should have their right to arrest, prosecute and imprison people for their private consensual sexual conduct," Savage says.
Savage was angered when Santorum went on to say that states have the same right to regulate homosexuality as they do pedophilia and bestiality. One of the readers of his column suggested that they hold a contest to redefine Santorum's last name.
"And I thought that was a good idea, tossed it in the column, people sent in suggested new definitions. I ran a bunch of them, and I let my readers vote and they chose that one," he says.
Savage created the website and blog where people can put updates about Santorum's political career, which faltered after he lost his re-election bid in 2007. But with his strong showing in Iowa, people are looking for information about Santorum. When they search his last name, the Savage blog comes right up.
Gabriel Stricker, head of Google's global communications, says no one at Google is making an editorial statement. He says their algorithms choose top search results based on objective criteria.
"There definitely are people who are finding this to be the best answer to their question, and they are indicating this by either clicking on this result or linking to this result as the best answer to that question," Stricker says.
A lot of people click on the SpreadingSantorum link every day to make sure it stays on top of the search results.
Stricker says Google often gets requests from celebrities and political figures to take down sites or remove links from the first page, but Google sticks to its algorithms unless the site incites violence or breaks the law.
The Santorum campaign did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. However, in the past, Santorum has referred to his "Google problem."
But Santorum can do something even if Google won't change the search results. A whole industry has grown up to help companies and public figures who also have Google problems.
"Because if you're not taking control of it, someone else will," says Dorie Clark, CEO of Clark Strategic Communications, a company that helps people with their digital marketing. Clark says the reality is that nothing on the Internet ever goes away. But Santorum could make Savage's site less noticeable.
"He should be having an army of volunteers blogging, recording podcasts, recording videocasts, because video especially is prioritized in search engine rankings, and creating so much new information about Rick Santorum that the search engines essentially forget about Dan Savage's site," Clark says.
Clark says it's now up to Santorum's campaign to give the public a lot more stuff to click on than an online prank.