Politics and Search Engine Position

We here in the U.S. are again on the precipice of a huge election year. The most interesting thing about the 2008 campaign is that it started in early 2007. While the actual election — going to the polls and actually voting (and praying) won’t happen until late 2008, the wrangling, the positioning, and the campaigning (my word, the campaigning!) have been going on in earnest for many, many months now.

Over the last decade, the Internet has become increasingly critical in the political world. Howard Dean‘s ill-fated presidential run broke amazing ground a few years ago by demonstrating how dispersed, grassroots excitement could turn into a full-fledged force, using just a handful of sites and technologies. Daily, hourly even, the blogs have traded volleys, providing commentary and helping solidify opinions about evolving issues. Larry Lessig, the brains behind Creative Commons, has even turned his attention to the problem of government corruption, offering a vision of how a connected group of citizens can disrupt frustration-as-usual in Washington and elsewhere.

And then, there are the search engines. Yahoo, Google, and the rest have become the default starting point for most decisions for many people. Choosing a candidate is no exception. In the coming months people will be typing candidate names into those query boxes, so I decided to do some exploring to see how the presidential hopefuls show up on their respective SERPs (define).

The good news about this is that some startling best and worst practices emerge from this search. And there’s a very clear winner. One candidate has done an absolutely stellar job of representing himself in a way that the engines can understand and communicate.

Let’s look at a few of these candidates and their SERPs. Naturally, I’m not making any recommendations, endorsements, or condemnations here. I’m just talking about what I see when I type in the brand name of a candidate. As well, I don’t look at everyone. After all, we’ve got dozens of people who want to be President. Below, you’ll just see a few of the most interesting ones.

Clinton: The Newsmaker

Hillary Clinton has a tough gig, at least right now: she’s constantly in the news. In fact, most of what she does is news, and that means on Google and Yahoo, the top line is filled with results from the engine’s news service. It also means the first impression a potential voter gets will be delivered not by the candidate’s campaign headquarters but from news organizations like the AP.

On the plus side, this shows you’re news. People are interested in you, and there’s some level of buzz. That’s communicated when you see news links above your site. But for a company, that may not be the best thing. Companies appear in the news for good things (such as Apple launching the iPhone or Google funding renewable energy), but often it’s for things that aren’t so good.

The takeaway here is simple: remember press releases and the stories written from them are indexed, and smart companies use them strategically. A number of SEO (define) companies specialize in using press releases to drive up the breadth of a company’s presence, as well as to highlight a particular product.

Romney and McCain: The MySpace Candidates

To be a candidate in the U.S., you have to demonstrate that you’re of the people and for the people. Often this is just a thin veneer (think rolled-up sleeves and the occasional baseball cap), but this year a few candidates have taken to the social networks, MySpace in particular. Both Mitt Romney and John McCain have created MySpace pages, and they show up very high in the rankings. It does seem odd, though, to have “Mitt Romney, Male, 60, Boston” show up as the page title.

MySpace profiles clearly have an advantage over Facebook in SERPs, in that they are accessible to everyone without having to sign up for the service. MySpace’s nature is public and perfectly fits candidates and, potentially, brands that want to increase their presence.

Of course, a social network presence is a lot different from a regular Web presence. The profiles’ openness can work for and against you, which can affect the way you show up on the SERPs. At the very least, you are partially defined on social networks by the company you keep: the friends you have are on display for all to see.

Paul: The (Search Engine) Winner!

Ron Paul is shaking up the elections…or at least people’s expectations of a candidate. On the SERP showdown, Paul has clearly outsmarted his competition. On Google, results are given a short line that’s a description of what the searcher will find on the site. The line describing Clinton’s site is “Official campaign site provides news clips, video, a blog and information on making contributions.” Obama’s is a terse “Official Website of Barack Obama 2008 Presidential Campaign.” The rest are similar: descriptions that what you’ll find on this Web site is a Web site.

Not Paul. The description line for his site is “Congressman Ron Paul is the leading advocate for freedom in our nation’s capital. This is the official website of the Ron Paul 2008 Presidential Campaign.” What a brilliant stroke! I haven’t got any idea what an “advocate for freedom” is and what qualifies Paul as the best at it. But the line is right there. Rather than simply provide an obvious, redundant (and forgettable) line that describes what a site is, Paul slides in an advertising line. This is in the organic results, but because of the way Paul’s engineers built the site, it works just like an ad. A message is communicated, right in the listing.

Position and Message

When we talk about SEO, we tend to have a single focus: position. Of course, position is paramount, but just as important is what you’ll say once you achieve that position. As search engines continue to expand the types of content that get listed in search engine listings, this becomes even more important. Ask has integrated thumbnail images of home pages, for example, which should make you think about how attractive your site appears when it is displayed in 100 x 100 pixels. Paul got that concept, and you should as well, for your brands and your products.

Want to know more about how the candidates are using the Internet to get their message out? Check out ClickZ News Campaign ’08 for regular updates on Web ads, e-mail, and more from the 2008 presidential campaigns.

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