For politicians and public figures, there are few things more embarrassing then having a name synonymous with scandal or disgrace. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner is a prime example of this, remembered now for little more than his lewd conduct on Twitter. However, one increasingly prominent national political figure has a PR problem that might stand out above all the rest. The well-documented "Google problem" of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum involves a slang use of his last name. Those who have conducted an online search using the Republican's name know that "Santorum" yields some crass and sometimes graphic websites, many of them ranked high atop the search results page (compare: Yahoo search, Google Search, Bing Search). While Santorum's search engine problem is the butt of many late night comedy jokes, members of the online reputation management industry say the problem is fixable.
In fact, the issue of Santorum's online search results represents a new horizon in the reputation management industry. In a political election year, some of the industry's top companies, including Reputation Changer, are broadening their services to include work on political campaigns. Justin Singletary, the Chief Executive Officer of Reputation Changer, says online reputation management is crucial for prominent media figures. "The way that most people find information is by conducting online searches, and, if a candidate's name yields results like the ones Rick Santorum gets, that's potentially a PR nightmare," Singletary says. "Online reputation management begins with suppressing those negative listings."
Singletary is quick to note that a reputation management agency's services to political figures don't end with the suppression of embarrassing online search results. "With a political candidate, reputation management is about much more than just cleaning up the first page of Google," Singletary notes. "A reputation management company also offers around-the-clock media monitoring, essentially allowing the client to assume as much control as possible over his or her national press coverage."
Still, Singletary acknowledges that a crucial part of any political reputation management campaign is in implementing an effective "clearing plan," designed to suppress potentially embarrassing or negative entries on the first page of a Google search. In the case of Santorum's search engine problem, there are several factors to combat. The chief offender is a site called SpreadingSantorum.com, currently the first site to appear on the Google search results page when a user searches for the word "Santorum." The site combines satirical commentary on Santorum's actual political policies with a heavy dose of lewd humor, all stemming from the slang use of the politician's name.
According to Singletary, the site has serious traction on Google, which is why a full-force reputation management campaign is necessary for suppressing it. Part of the site's strength comes from the fact that it is what online reputation management professionals call an exact match domain name, meaning that the URL contains the exact search term that search engine users are likely to use—"Santorum." This contributes greatly to the site's perceived relevance, and therefore its high ranking, on Google.
Additionally, SpreadingSantorum.com benefits from its high social media profile. The site has amassed thousands of Facebook fans, but what really makes a difference is Google+. To date, SpreadingSantorum.com has received nearly 16,000 +1's from search engine users. This Google+ innovation essentially allows users to "vote" content to the top of the search results page. +1's have a tremendous impact on Google rankings, and for a site that goes viral, like SpreadingSantorum.com, the potential for PR damage is extreme.
Indeed, Santorum is a prime example of how every politician or public figure ultimately trades on reputation, meaning the need for retaining an online reputation management is pervasive. Presently, there are only a small number of reputation management companies that can provide services on the scale necessary for overseeing an entire political campaign. The widely publicized search engine conundrum faced by Rick Santorum could well change that, as more and more politicians and campaign managers realize how essential the suppression of these negative listings can be for electoral success, and how beneficial an online reputation management is for shaping and controlling public opinion.