The White House Petition Website Is Broken

I came across a link to a petition on the White House petition site asking that presidential debates include third-party candidates.  I became curious, because this is an issue that is a concern to many Americans.

The “Open Government” is Blocking Google Search

The best way to search a website is with Google, so I used the site operator to search for petitions about presidential debates. The results indicated that the website is blocking Google from indexing the petitions:

Google search blocked by robots.txt
Blocked by robots.txt

If you look at the description under the purple link there, it says, “A description for this result is not available because of this site’s robots.txt”, which means that the site is intentionally blocking Google.

The relevant robots.txt rules are:

Disallow: /petition
Disallow: /petitions

If you click the link at the bottom to include the omitted results, you can see some of the couple dozen previous petitions about presidential debates. Most of them expired before they got enough votes, which is understandable, because no one can find them.

Here are some of the titles of the petitions, based on their URLs, showing that the issue of open presidential debates is important to people:

  • request-commission-presidential-debates-invite-viable-third-party-candidates-presidential-debates
  • help-push-and-create-fairness-presidential-debates
  • open-our-political-process-here-america-aka-open-presidential-and-vice-presidential-debates
  • allow-any-party-candidate-ballots-38-states-rule-con-amendments-all-commission-presidential-debates
  • allow-viable-third-party-candidates-be-seated-presidential-debates
  • let-all-third-party-candidates-participate-televised-presidential-debates-starting-2016
  • move-end-commission-presidential-debates
  • urge-commission-presidential-debates-not-block-third-party-candidates-taking-part-2016-debates
  • admit-third-party-candidates-presidential-debates-2016

The Website’s Search Box Doesn’t Work Well

I then tried to use the website’s search box, but I couldn’t get the right results. When I searched for “presidential debates” I got 12 results, and none of them were the active petitions about presidential debates.

Search results
The petitions about presidential debates are missing

Also, the search feature is not sophisticated enough to know that when I search for “debate” the plural form is also okay. I searched for “debate” and got zero results:

Searched for "debate"
Searched for “debate” — no results

I searched for “debates” and got only one result. It didn’t include the live petitions that are about the presidential debates.

Only one search result
Only one search result for “debates”

Trying to Browse All Results

I also tried to browse all of the open petitions to find information about presidential debates.

All White House petitions
All White House petitions

Strangely, there are only only 294 open petitions and there are none listed about presidential debates in that list, because I searched the page with my browser:

View all White House petitions
Viewing all 294 petitions

However, there actually are at least two open petitions about presidential debates that I was able to find through other means. Here are screenshots:

Presidential debates
Presidential debates petition
Presidential debates petition
Presidential debates petition

At the time of this writing, the pages are viewable here and here.

To be thorough, I also searched the list of “popular petitions” and the posts weren’t there either:

All petitions
All petitions

What Is Featured?

I suppose that one could argue that a petition with only a few votes is not worthy of being featured, but I don’t know how it could be argued that they should be unfindable.

As I mentioned at the top of the page, the issue of having fair presidential debates is important to Americans. Yet, a look at the top petitions on the page include this one:

Featured petitions
Featured petitions


Two suggestions:

  1. Remove the robots.txt rules that block Googlebot. If this is “open government”, then let the search engines index the information.
  2. Implement a better search feature. The current one doesn’t work.

If anyone has any other suggestions, please leave a comment below.

Update: it appears that the petitions were blocked on January 8, 2013: before, after.

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