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How Do You Solve A Google Problem Like Rick Santorum's?

Rick Santorum during his 2012 presidential campaign
Charlie Neibergall
Rick Santorum during his 2012 presidential campaign

In February 2011, Eric Sherred was feeling good.

The Republican had just landed a new assignment: working on Rick Santorum's presidential campaign as a digital strategist.

One of his main responsibilities would be search engine optimization. That is, making sure the campaign's website turned up high in Google searches.

So, Sherred was pretty happy.

That is, until he went home, turned on Comedy Central, and saw Stephen Colbert urge people to Google Rick Santorum.

"So here's his problem," Colbert told his audience. "When you Google Santorum, the first result you get is, quote...."

And that's where we have to stop Colbert. Because the result is, by design, incredibly gross.

At this point, Santorum's "Google problem" had been dogging the former Pennsylvania Senator for nearly a decade. It was the result of an online stunt by Dan Savage, a sex columnist who was upset by Santorum's views on homosexuality.

In 2003, Savage had enlisted a digital army to tie Santorum's name with an...unpleasant sexual definition...and then "Google bomb" the Republican until the new term became the top search result for "Rick Santorum."

This wasn't new, but here was a popular comedian urging Colbert Nation to "click on every link that brings it up. ...be sure to click on those links, over and over again."

Really - this segment aired the day Sherred found out he'd be working on the campaign. "I just...I went home, I watched it," he recalled. "And it was one of those most defeating moments. Because you're like, well, my job just got 10,000 times harder."

Turning the tide on the "Google Problem," Sherred said, "was actually pretty much our top priority."

Because, think about it – what do you do when you have a question about something? You likely Google it.

The hostile site was an extreme example of what every campaign has to deal with. There's a lot of negative material out there. And campaigns need to make sure their websites are popping up ahead of those other sites in people's search engines.

"When you're interested in something, the common thought is, well I'm going to Google it," Sherred said. "And with that, you want to make sure you're at the top of the results page. Most people still stick to the first one, two, or three search results to try and find what they're looking for."

And needless to say, a campaign does not want a graphic sexual term to be the first result potential voters are seeing.

So Sherred and his team got to work. "One of the things that we made a big focus on was posting content that actually contained Senator Santorum - Rick Santorum's name, every single day," he said.

Google's search algorithm is secret, but outside links always play a big role in where sites rank. Sherred said the campaign would reach out to friendly bloggers, asking for links.

This sort of digital grunt work is par for the course for political campaigns.

Matt Oczkowski ran digital operations for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

When he first started, he says he came up with a list of one thousand different search terms he wanted the campaign to score high on. Then, his team started chipping away.

"Putting up a blog post, putting out a social post," Oczkowski recalled. "Pushing something out to a reporter. And seeing the effect that has over a number of weeks."

Climbing the SEO rankings isn't high-tech work. It just requires persistence, repetition, and time.

But the results can pay big dividends for campaigns – especially when the candidates' homepage leapfrogs other hostile sites. Simply typing, "Is [candidate]" or the candidate's name into a Google search window provides a window into the problems this year's presidential hopefuls are facing in searchland.

Among the autocomplete options for Hillary Clinton: "Hillary Clinton email." "Is Ted Cruz" leads to "Is Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer," the result of a Santorum-style online prank.

But Clinton's campaign has done its work. The first result for the "HIlalry Clinton email" search, just above a hostile story from the Washington Examiner, is an article on her homepage titled, "The Facts About Hillary Clinton's emails."

Because so many voters turn to Google and other search engines to learn about candidates, observers are paying more and more attention to search trends.

Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini has been studying Google Trends data in the days before this year's primaries and caucuses.

"Particularly that very last day, in the morning of, you usually see something interesting that later gets borne out in the election results," he said.

In New Hampshire, searches for John Kasich skyrocketed ahead of his surprise second-place finish.

In Iowa, Donald Trump searches declined in the final days of the race, while Cruz and Marco Rubio searches climbed.

In fact, Ruffini says Republican candidates' final share of search totals have been eerily similar to the percentage of votes they ended up with. "It matched up within a point or two in South Carolina, and it was almost as close in New Hampshire," he said.

That's not to say we should throw out exit polls. Bernie Sanders has consistently outpaced Hillary Clinton on search traffic, even when Clinton has topped Sanders in that state's contest. That's likely because she's been a national figure for decades, whereas many voters aren't too familiar with Sanders' record.

As for Eric Sherred and the Santorum campaign, they kept plugging away. Post after post, link after link.

And then, one day a few weeks before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, it happened. "We were very very proud that one day when we finally clicked around and said, we're number one," he said. "We finally did it. That was a big day for us."

All that hard work had paid off. So much so that four years later, when he ran a second time, Rick Santorum had no problem asking voters to go ahead and Google him.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.