The "Senator Rick Santorum vs. Google" controversy exploded in my inbox yesterday, along with one really, seriously irate phone call that was particularly notable. Then satirist, ersatz right-winger Stephen Colbert closed out the day in his own unique style.
The level of activity suggests (though I certainly cannot prove) that some sort of organized pro-Santorum campaign had been deployed. I'm used to people contacting me about Google-related issues based on my various past postings, but yesterday had the smell of something more systematic.
In any case, the topic was a familiar one -- complaints about searches for "Santorum" on Google yielding as their top result an SEO-induced (that is, via the use of Search Engine Optimization techniques) link to what we could call a significantly off-color "revenge site" aimed at Santorum by an individual disgruntled by Santorum's anti-gay remarks.
Recent news reports have suggested that Santorum has recently approached Google asking that the search results be altered, and that Google has (appropriately, in my opinion) denied this request.
Colbert then picked up the theme last night, even quoting Google's Matt Cutts' accurate statement that search results are subject to first amendment protections.
The focus on Santorum will probably fade considerably once it becomes clear that he's not going to be the GOP presidential nominee. But search freedom detractors will likely continue to use this case as a "poster child" for their insidious demands that governments should have control over search engine algorithms.
Regular readers probably know that folks have been sending me their complaints about search results for years, and that I am absolutely dedicated to the concept that Google (and other search engines) should have 100% control over their search algorithms -- being forced to alter the order of those results based on specific complaints would set a terrible precedent.
Having said that, I continue to feel that some sort of explanatory "annotation" mechanism for specific highly controversial results in a carefully delineated set of circumstances -- much as Google has long done for searches on the word "Jew" -- might merit serious consideration. Such a process (to be applied only in a very limited set of cases) could provide useful transparency to help searchers understand why particular "contentious" results are appearing -- especially when they seem incongruous at first glance and have triggered significant public scrutiny.
Most importantly, such a system would allow search results to remain completely in their algorithmically computed order, which must rightly be viewed as a top priority for search engines and their community of users.
This is a very difficult set of problems, and there are no appropriate trivial solutions. No matter how these issues are approached, somebody is going to be dissatisfied. But calls for government involvement in search engine algorithms should be extremely alarming to everyone who cares about the sanctity of search results and the knowledge that they help impart to us all.