Newspaper article Roll Call

Search Engines Are a Thorn in Congress' Side

Newspaper article Roll Call

Search Engines Are a Thorn in Congress' Side

Article excerpt

Congressional staffers control the content on Members' websites. They control Members' Facebook and Twitter accounts. They can even manage Internet search results by buying ads and using search engine optimization techniques.

But Hill staffers can't control what people wonder about their bosses.

The latest trend in helpful Web search technologies is quietly causing headaches for Members of Congress and those who manage their reputations. Search engines such as Google now offer suggested search terms that appear in a drop-down menu as users begin typing.

Those search terms, formulated partly based on what other users are searching, often serve up all kinds of negative associations about Members of Congress -- from keeping gaffes alive to raising sexual questions -- and there's not much politicians can do about it.

Look no further than Rep. Alcee Hastings, who was impeached by the House in 1988 and removed from his job as a U.S. district judge in Florida after being charged with bribery and perjury. Though he was later cleared of charges and is now a respected voice on human rights issues, someone typing his name into Google today might think the Florida Democrat had been impeached again.

A search for "Alcee Hastings" brings up an autocomplete drop- down menu with a few search suggestions based on what Google thinks users might be looking for. Some of the terms that come up are "impeachment," "trial" and "bribery."

Autocomplete also won't forget Rep. Jean Schmidt's past. A Google search for the Ohio Republican is likely to bring up the terms "ethics," "corrupt" and "Armenian genocide," referring to an ethics investigation in July 2011. A voter looking only for her website or contact information might search instead for details about the investigation after being prompted by Google. A spokesman from Schmidt's office said the staff does not monitor what Google autocomplete suggests.

Then there's GOP Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), who can't escape from his decades-ago nude photo shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine. And Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has a penchant for crying, and Google reminds anyone looking for him that he's publicly shed many tears.

For Rep. Hank Johnson, autocomplete usually suggests "Guam" and "Guam capsize," referring to the Georgia Democrat's 2010 gaffe questioning if a large population in Guam would cause the island to "tip over." When looking for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Google will suggest "spit," reminding users the Missouri Democrat said he was spit on by a tea party protester at a rally in 2010. And anyone looking for Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) will be reminded that he made headlines when his wife accused him of having unpaid child support.

In the insta-world of politics, those suggestions matter.

Patrick Hynes, president of online communications agency Hynes Communications, said something as fleeting as autocomplete can leave a lasting image and a potentially negative one at that. "Split- second associations with just a small assortment of words is sometimes enough to brand you as something that you may not be or something that you try to get past," he said.

"It's certainly something that every politician and every organization that's concerned about its reputation needs to focus on," Hynes said, calling the search suggestions "yet another area where their reputation is at stake."

Hynes explained that politicians tend to focus on search engine optimization, which allows individuals and organizations to reorder their search results by presenting positive information on websites in ways that more easily draw the attention of search engine algorithms. That manipulation aims to place favorable content higher on the list of search results and be seen first, while negative content is moved farther down the list.

Politicians also frequently purchase advertising through Google's AdWords so that their preferred message appears when certain terms are searched. …

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