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Google's Rick Santorum Problem

Rick Santorum has a Google problem, and everybody knows about it -- mostly because Rick Santorum won't stop talking about it. Last week, Politico reported that Santorum had contacted Google and asked them to do something about "spreadingsantorum.com," the (hugely successful) revenge prank pulled by columnist Dan Savage after Santorum publicly compared homosexuality to bestiality.

After Google declined to manipulate their search results, Santorum said:

“If you're a responsible business, you don't let things like that happen in your business that have an impact on the country. [...] 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 may regret giving Politico that quote, which reveals that the presidential hopeful is not entirely sure what Google is (a website? a system?) and how search engine algorithms work. As Noam Cohen at The New York Times says:

"The immediate reaction to Mr. Santorum’s statement has largely been, 'How quaint. He thinks he can get Google to fix the Internet for him if he asks?' Mr. Santorum could have hurt his cause more only if he had told the company’s officials to roll up their sleeves and put a plug in the tubes carrying the offensive material. "

Yet Cohen and many others -- like Politico's Ben Smith -- think that Santorum has a point. Cohen argues:

"Google’s defense — that the behavior of its ever-improving algorithm should be considered independent of the results it produces in a particular controversial case — has a particularly patronizing air, especially when it comes to hurting living, breathing people."

The Santorum/Savage melee would be little more than a titillating sidebar to Santorum's presidential campaign were it not for the fact that Google is now defending itself in Washington against government officials, politicians, and competitors who say the tech giant is  unfairly manipulating its search results to promote its own products.

For a service that the majority of Internet users choose to enjoy, Google Search is currently the target of a surprising amount of criticism---from both the left and the right.

At a briefing today at The Heritage Foundation, Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich reminded a roomful of conservative and libertarian bloggers how Google's search engine algorithm has evolved over the last ten years. On September 11, 2001, a Google search for "World Trade Center" ranked results in the same order it had the day before. Nearly a decade later, when Osama bin Laden was killed, a Google Search for "bid Laden" resulted in Google News results and real-time results that immediately informed users about the day's events.

And the search engine is continuing to improve its algorithm. In 2010, Google tested 13,000 algorithm changes and implemented 500. Like Bing and Yahoo, they use human raters and user satisfaction signals to test changes.

Rick Santorum is an unlucky man: It turns out that the number of Internet users who think Dan Savage is funny may simply be greater (or more active) than the number who wish to learn more about the former senator's presidential campaign. According to The Huffington Post, Savage's site has thousands more inbound links than the former senator's official website.

But that's not really Google's fault. (Nor is it the fault of Bing or Yahoo, both of whom list Savage's prank-site in top results. )

When one considers the day-by-day process through which Google engineers slowly improve Google Search to better suit massive consumer demand, Rick Santorum's suggestion that Google simply cross off an unseemly Google result at the top of their results for "santorum" seems -- quite frankly -- ridiculous.

Equally ridiculous is the idea that legislators and regulators in Washington are in any way qualified or in any way needed to oversee this complex process and make command decisions about how Google's search results should appear.