Why Did Google Ban a Senator's Website?

by Benjamin Domenech on 12:59 am August 1, 2009

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, never one to avoid the spotlight, is smack in the middle of it at the moment — but not for any good reasons. It’s never a good week when your campaign site ends up getting banned by Google.

Locked in the middle of the most fractious Republican primary in the land with sitting Texas Governor Rick Perry, Hutchison — a 66-year-old pro-choice moderate with a penchant for attention-getting suits — has been answering questions for months about whether she was planning to resign from the Senate, both to demonstrate her commitment to the state and to doing what it will take to beat the suddenly formidable Perry, whose political prospects have apparently been rejuvenated by a recent populist streak. No governor has arguably benefited more from the upsurge in anti-bailout sentiment than Perry, whose anti-insider tack seems to be working surprisingly well against Hutchison, hampered by the fact that she’s been in Washington since 1993, and hasn’t had to navigate a difficult election in more than fifteen years. Nothing about this contest has gone as expected, and this week was no different.

On Wednesday, it initially appeared that Hutchison had finally made a decision to leave the District and head back home, truly committed to winning this Texas-sized contest. In an interview on the Mark Davis Show on Dallas-Fort Worth’s WBAP radio, Hutchison said:

“Well, I’m going to announce in August. Formal announcement: I am in. Then the actual leaving of the Senate will be sometime – October, November – that, in that timeframe.”

The news lit a fire under the Texas political establishment. As media outlets scrambled to confirm the story, the ramifications of this announcement were being analyzed for reasons far beyond just the Perry/Hutchison showdown. There are a series of dominoes set to fall here, with a group of GOP candidates of varying strengths who are already lined up in anticipation. Under Texas law, Gov. Perry would get to appoint an interim Senator whose term would only last until a special election can be called — most likely in May of 2010, but perhaps as early as March, to coincide with the party primaries. In a state as big as Texas, with a deep Republican bench and many wannabe Senators, GOP politicians are itching to move up the ranks when she leaves, and Hutchison’s remarks sparked a reactions within each prospective campaign. She even went so far as to tell Houston Mayor Bill White, Texas Democrats’ best hopes for stealing the seat from the GOP (and that’s not out of the question), that she was definitely stepping down.

Yet within a few hours, it all seemed moot. At an event in the afternoon with reporters, Hutchison “clarified” that she meant to say she would only resign her seat if Perry dropped out of the race, and that she had not expected him to run again in 2010. Speaking to NPR, Hutchison implied that it didn’t seem right for Perry to run for another term saying, it was “pretty unprecedented to have a governor trying to serve 15 years.” Of course, the fact that even after Hutchison’s been in the Senate for 16 years, Perry’s solidly ahead in current polls makes this suggestion laughable, to say the least. CQ Politics summed it up thusly:

She’s quitting. She’s not quitting. She might be quitting. No, she wants the governor to be the quitter — and quit thinking about re-election.

But this wasn’t to be Team Hutchison’s only gift to the Perry campaign this week. Displaying the kind of Web 2.0 acumen so common to Republican online efforts, the Austin American Statesman discovered Thursday a rather sloppy bit of SEO work within a Hutchison campaign site, which featured the standard spam phrase filler, with one particularly notable listing:

The site may have been juiced with the intent of drawing visitors with the help of more than 2,200 hidden phrases—including “rick perry gay.” (See the phrases here.)…

Meanwhile, an Austin expert on search engine optimization told me it looks to her like the list of phrases was created as a misguided attempt to drive up the site’s relevance in searches on Google and other search engines or by a hacker intending harm to Hutchison’s campaign.

The expert, Kate Morris, said the site could be subject to getting banned by the Google search engine because of the hidden phrases, which are looked down upon because sometimes phrase combinations can cause engines to mistakenly rate a site as more relevant (or useful) than it is.

I noted Morris’s initial reaction to the pile of hidden phrases: “Woah. Oh my lord. Wow.”

Her reason for the reaction: “The sheer number of phrases and the archaic manner in which they were inserted caught me off guard.”

Lo and behold, Morris’s prediction appears to have come true without much delay: Google has apparently banned Senator Hutchison’s campaign site, at least for the moment — it still doesn’t come up in my attempts to search, while it appears fine in Bing and other engines.

With the polls looking the way they do and the clear signal that this race will be no cakewalk, some in Texas have been questioning Hutchison’s commitment to her campaign for Governor — she has backed out of it twice before, in 2002 and 2006, and even NRSC Chair John Cornyn isn’t sure about her timetable. This week will raise more questions among her followers, some of whom took large political risks backing a challenger over a sitting Governor in their own party, and are now raising quiet concerns about being embarrassed once again.

Let’s take the Hutchison campaign’s statements at face value: they’ve said that the list of keywords embedded in their site was generated “by a computer,” or were inserted unknowingly by their web consultants. So while they may not have been playing clumsy search engine games, they’re at best technologically out of touch. And paired with the candidate’s actions this week, her supporters have to be asking if the Hutchison is, too.

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