Santorum does not have a “Google Problem.” He has a civil rights problem.

The Signal

If you type the word "Santorum" into any major search engine, the first result you'll get is to Spreading Santorum, a site created by sex-columnist Dan Savage whose mission is to redefine the candidate's last name as a sex act--or rather, a graphic description of the result of one--and catalog his extreme position on sexual morals. If you search for "Rick Santorum," you still get this site somewhere in the top ten. (Disclaimer: Search rankings are increasingly personalized, so you might not see exactly what we do, particularly if you have strict content filter settings.)

Santorum is none-too-pleased about this. Last September, Politico reported that he contacted Google  about having the site removed, without luck. Santorum categorized the site as "filth," and said he believed the company would remove the site from its listings if it targeted Joe Biden, for example. But if the goal of a search engine is to provide links to sites that people want to read, then the prevalence of Spreading Santorum is evidence that people are interested in Santorum's record on civil rights, including those of same-sex couples. We can confirm this with search engine data. Popular phrases in search results that include Santorum's name, in just the last 48 hours, include scandal, birth control, gay rights, abortion, and race comments. On Twitter, top hashtags connected with Rick Santorum include reference LGBT issues and Rachel Maddow's recent discussion of Santorum's positions in relation to several recent sex scandals.

The continued position of Spreading Santorum and other sites is a reflection of what Internet users want to read about. Chris Wilson, now with us at The Signal, wrote a few months ago in Slate that Spreading Santorum's prevalence cannot simple be explained away as an organized smear campaign. In the past, links from other sites were hugely important in determining a page's position in search results; thus, an ultimately irrelevant site could do well in search results by getting a lot people to link to it. But search companies have refined their algorithms to make them much harder to play these games. For Spreading Santorum to remain this strong, despite the launch of Santorum's presidential campaign, is a sign that it's still relevant to the primary.

For curious searchers, there's plenty to read about. Consider a sampling of his positions:

Santorum has repeatedly expressed support for overturning Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized contraceptives for married couples. In a now-famous 2003 interview with an AP reporter, he categorized same-sex relationships alongside pedophilia and bestiality--comments that ultimately inspired Savage, the founder of the "It Gets Better" campaign, to start his alternative site. Santorum attributes the Catholic Church sex scandals to the loose morals of Boston, a position he defended to a stunned George Sephanopoulos in 2005. He recently attacked Barack Obama's pro-choice views on the basis that Obama is black. He told David Gregory he would prosecute doctors who perform any abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. He believes that the Constitution should treat the cells created at conception as a life, which would in practice give them precedence over the human carrier; even Mississippi voters rejected this position in 2011.

David Rothschild is an economist at Yahoo! Research. He has a Ph.D. in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is in creating aggregated forecasts from individual-level information. Follow him on Twitter @DavMicRot and email him at thesignal@yahoo-inc.com.

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