The Google Problem: What People Really Think of the Presidential Possibilities

Feb 14, 2012 11:58am
ht google home page romney thg 120214 wblog The Google Problem: What People Really Think of the Presidential Possibilities

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We already knew that Rick Santorum had a Google problem, but it turns out he’s not the only one.

Search “Romney,” and among the top results is a site called spreadingromney.com (Santorum’s is spreadingsantorum.com), which  gives the following, made-up definition: “romney (rom-ney) v. 1. To defecate in terror. See also: santorum.”

Hovering over the word “terror” in the “romney” definition leads to a Huffington Post article about Romney’s dog, Seamus, who was infamously transported to a family vacation in a cage atop the Romney family vehicle.

Web designer Jack Shepler posted spreadingromney.com Jan. 10, and two days later, Rachel Maddow mentioned  it on her show, skyrocketing it to fame. Shepler told ABC News that page views that day were around 7,000, and Monday,  they were  up to nearly 24,000.

Shepler said spreadingsantorum.com served as his inspiration, and that Dan Savage, the sex advice columnist and gay rights activist credited for that site, helped spreadingromney.com gain popularity by tweeting a link to it from his Twitter account, @fakedansavage.

In the past, Savage reported he was asked to take down his site. Shepler said the Romney campaign had not contacted him. He also said he was baffled as to why spreadingromney.com had become so popular.

“When I launched the site, I shared it on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Google+,” Shepler wrote in an email to ABC News. “Since then, it has simply been reposted and reshared by site visitors and my own followers and friends. I have not done any other promoting of the content besides answering interviews with reporters.”

According to Google Trends, “Santorum” spiked in searching popularity between Feb. 8 and 9, right  after the candidate’s wins in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. Salt Lake City searched the most for “romney” and “santorum” in the past month.

While Santorum’s and Romney’s new definitions might pain them enough, there’s another Google algorithm out there causing problems for other candidates.

Google Autocomplete, launched in 2010 as Google Instant, seems to mimic telepathy, finishing sentences better than any sweetheart, at least in theory.

But when ABC News plugged in phrases related to  the presidential candidates last week, we wondered if Google perhaps “thought” we were a bunch of Negative Nancies:  Most of the search results that came up were insulting or presumably pejorative.

When we typed  ”Mitt Romney is …” the first four suggestions were: “Mitt Romney is Mexican,” “Mitt Romney is a tool,” “Mitt Romney is an idiot,”  “Mitt Romney is a serial killer.”

Google seemed to “think” we thought  Obama, Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all idiots, or that Obama and Santorum were  gay or that Gingrich and Santorum should drop out or that Romney, Santorum and Gingrich were not conservative.

We asked some non-journos in Texas and Maine to Google the same phrases that we did. In Texas, Google delivered almost  the same results, except for one phrase. In addition to “a socialist,” “black” and “a Muslim,” Google suggested “the antichrist” when a search began with  ”Obama is not …”

Googling the same phrases in Maine — where Republican caucuses ended Saturday — offered the same results as the original, negative phrases. Though Google takes location into account when searching Google Maps, it turns out that location doesn’t play much of a role in Google Autocomplete.

Brad Fry, director of  the digital marketing firm Zeta, explained that Google’s search suggestions had nothing to do with what anyone was thinking, or not thinking.  Google, Fry said,  doesn’t actually “think” about what we would like to search at all.

“The Autocomplete suggestions are not manually influenced by Google except in extremely rare cases,” Fry wrote in an email to ABC News. “Google is a machine that reflects the activity of its users.”

None of the searchers in our experiment were signed into Gmail, but according to Google Support, search history would affect results if  users were signed in.

If  you often visit  sites nominating  Obama for sainthood, for example, Google might suggest “Obama should be canonized” instead of “Obama should be impeached.”

“Google’s Autocomplete suggestions are simply based on what people are searching for and do not reflect any particular agenda,” Fry said.

In other words,  these search results popped up  because a lot of other people had searched using the same phrases before us, not because Google had hand-picked them.

That could mean that the “enthusiasm gap” facing the Republican Party might extend to the rest of the country, or at least the rest of the Googleverse.

Obama’s results came back negative about as many times as they did for each of the GOP candidates.

But Fry emphasized that  search results were not necessarily “true or even possible,” and he didn’t believe they reflected much about the American political system.

“It is, however, a reflection of the appetite of the public for negative stories about politicians,” Fry said, ”something I am sure your news desk knows already :-).”

ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.

 

 

 

 

 

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