It appears that Mitt Romney now has a Rick Santorum Internet-age problem.
Recall that Web users who search for "Santorum" using a tool like Google are immediately confronted with a parody site that offers a faux definition of the word "santorum" which is not suitable for work or polite conversations. Within the past few weeks, enterprising Romney-haters have pulled off the same trick, albeit at a slightly less tasteless level.
Searching for Romney using Google now yields a page defining the term Romney as "to defecate in terror" within the first five links or so, reports Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand.com. (Go ahead, try it for yourself).
Clicking on the site brings visitors to a Web site called "SpreadingRomney.com" which echoes the SpreadingSantorum.com site. The page repeats the definition and links to a story about Romney's ill-fated family vacation that include a lengthy trip with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car.
"I don’t recall seeing it recently, so it appears to be a new gain," Sullivan wrote in a blog post about it.
The rise is unusually meteoric, and almost certainly signifies a concentrated effort to game Google's ranking system. In fact, Sullivan uncovered a page at DemocraticUnderground.com encouraging people to "Google Bomb" the SpreadingRomney site.
(Geeks would say this technique isn't, strictly speaking, a Google bomb. But it certainly must feel like one to the Romney camp).
The site launched on Jan. 10, site creator Jack Shepler told Sullivan. He also said he's not affiliated with any campaign, and created the site just to be funny, "and to make a point."
It got a boost when msnbc's Rachel Maddow mentioned it during her show two days later, but that hardly justifies the high Google ranking. SpreadingSantorum has been around for years, has attracted thousands of links the old-fashioned way, and the site offers real points of debate about gay rights debate. SpreadingRomney.com is hardly more than a blank page, yet still managed to fool Google and Microsoft's Bing. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
We've discussed earlier how political entities can trick search engines, and why Google seems to let this go on as a form of political speech.
Sullivan supports that concept, but the quick rise of SpreadingRomney.com might be changing his mind a bit.
"For this site to leap-frog ... others, it creates all the same issues that Google initially encountered with real Google bombs, the impression that anyone can fire off a linking campaign and make it into the top results for anything," he said. "Certainly Google should take a harder look at why its algorithm rewarded a site with so little substance to it."