Super Tuesday, Internet Style: How We’re Using The Web In The 2008 Elections

Google/Twitter Super Tuesday Primary Map

Today is Super Tuesday, which means that voters in 24 states are carefully reviewing their candidate research and doing last minute thoughtful analysis in preparation for voting in the primaries. Well, maybe that’s hopeful optimism, but in any case, the place these voters are turning to for information is increasingly the internet. Makes sense, as after all, the internet continues to play a larger role in how we get information generally.

And in the case of politics, this turn to digital is in some ways bringing back the roots of American politics — when communities got together and discussed the issues in town halls and parlors. The politicians are more accessible than ever before via their online presence — from web sites to Twitter accounts to YouTube videos. And voters can discuss the issues in real time: live blog the debates, exchange ideas on discussion forums, create Facebook groups. Of course, politics have also made their way into online advertising. Government is also going digital. Georgia, for instance, is providing primary results updates via email.

Search engines are even getting into the political fray. Ask is offering political Smart Answers and Google is displaying primary-related Twitters on a Google map.

Below, the results of a recent study on election-related internet use, as well as a general survey of the online political landscape.

According to a recent PEW Research Center study, 24% of Americans get at least some of their information about the 2008 political campaigns from the internet, compared to just 13% during the 2004 election. 42% of younger voters (those aged 18-29) regularly turn to the internet (particularly social networking sites) for political news. Interestingly, the percentage of Americans who get political news from other mediums such as TV and newspaper have remained fairly flat since 2004, so likely the internet providing an addition source of data rather than replacing traditional sources. Only 15% of those surveyed said that they receive most of their election news online. Television remains the most common sources of news, cited by 71% of respondents.

Where specifically are web searchers going for news?

  • msnbc.com (26%)
  • cnn.com (23%)
  • Yahoo! News (22%)

Google News is used at the same rate as Fox News (9%) and considerably more often than newspaper sites (NY Times was cited 6% of the time; USA Today only 1%).

27% of those under 30 and 37% of those aged 18-24 get at least some political news from social networking sites (this number drops dramatically for those over 30). Interestingly, many survey respondents said they didn’t use the internet to specifically seek out political information; rather, they came across it in the course of doing other things online. This speaks to the growing discovery behaviors of web users evidenced by the popularity of sites such as Digg.

Do most people really get their political information from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report? As it turns out, they generally don’t. Those who watch these types of shows are more likely to consume other types of news as well. However, Americans do see the presidential candidates more often due to television appearances (57%) than due to the debates (43%).

Voters are using the internet for discussion, in addition to learning news. 16% (22% of internet users overall) have sent or received emails about politics. Use of social networking sites is increasing as well, although only 30% of internet users polled said they used social networking sites for any purpose. 12% of those who use social networks have added candidates as a “friend.”

What’s new since 2004 in the online political landscape?

Twitter Google has teamed up with Twitter to generate this super cool Google Map that shows real-time Twitters about the primaries. @SuperTuesday is providing real-time coverage throughout the day. Terraminds is useful to see what people are saying about the process or specific candidates, such as this search for Obama or this search for super tuesday. Some journalists are even using Twitter as a kind of reporting tool.

Social Networking Sites, Such As Facebook All types of groups exist, from news groups like this one from ABC news, to organizations like Rock the Vote. A search for Hillary Clinton Facebook groups skews towards anti-Hillary gatherings, although supportive groups are scattered throughout the results as well, which brings up the question of consolidation. While more and more of us are turning to the internet for news and discussion, more of us are also starting web pages, groups, forums, and Twitter accounts for topics, and it can be difficult to sort through it all. Some social networking sites have tried to make clearing through the clutter with focused landing pages, such as this one from Pageflakes.

Nielson has been tracking blogging chatter and top sites. Democrats seem to favor blackamericaweb.com and dailykos.com, Republicans favor rushlimbaugh.com and newsmax.com, and independents are visiting boston.com and bostonherald.com.

Old and new media are coming together with partnerships like CNN/YouTube, MTV/MySpace, and CBS/Digg.

Online Videos The PEW study notes that 41% of those under 30 (and 24% of all Americans) have watched campaign videos online. Services like Truveo are providing tools to easily access political videos online and viral videos are coming into play in the campaigns, probably for the first time (such as this one for Barack Obam, seen 1,357,756 times at the time of this writing). Google is getting in on the video action as well, creating a central location for political videos at YouChoose08. They’re placing videos from across the country on a Google Map to more easily put the videos in a geographical context.

Online Trends You can do lots of fun things with applications like Google Trends and Alexa. Google Trends says Obama might be leading slightly over Clinton:

Clinton and Obama Search Trends

But Alexa thinks Obama has a clear lead:

Clinton and Obama Traffic Trends: Alexa

As does Compete:

Clinton and Obama Traffic Trends: Compete

Are the candidates well-versed in search engine optimization? Barack Obama has the number one listing for his name (after the book and news results, but above the Wikipedia listing!), but his home page is entirely in Flash. Hillary Clinton also has the first result (after the news listing) and her home page has some content, although if you turn off images and javascript, her navigation disappears completely.

HIllary Clinton's SEO

I found most candidate web sites when searching for their names, but they don’t fare as well in topic-specific searches. And candidates might be disheartened to learn that surfers are accessing news satire sites like theonion.com and thedailyshow.com just as often as candidate sites (11% of internet users for each site type).

Search Marketing Gurus has an entire series that breaks down how each candidate is using the internet that includes SEO critique of their web sites. The post on John Edwards, for instance, notes that he was the first candidate to use the internet (YouTube) to announce his presidency, and was active online in places like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr, and blogging. However, his official site wasn’t optimized for search, he had no PPC campaign, and his team neglected many social networking sites that they initially created profiles for.

What about politicians and online advertising? A report by Borrell & Associates found that online spending will garner just $20 million of the nearly $5 billion political advertising budget. But ad networks aren’t ignoring what’s bound to become a larger wave. Google AdWords announced new policies for political ads, for instance.

How Well Does The Internet Answer Political Questions? A previous PEW/Internet study found that most Americans (70% of those surveyed) expect the government to make information available online. Resource Shelf has a list of online resources, mostly government powered, that provide election-related data. LLRX.com has a roundup of state and federal election resources as well.

But does search satisfactorily answer election-related questions? Not always. This is an opportunity that marketers (those working for candidates, political organizations, and other related businesses) can take better advantage of throughout the election season.

I noted on my blog that I only found the answer to the question “when are the primaries for each state?” at result #13. In that post, I talked about how marketers could take a look at questions that had no good answers ranking on the first page of results and create valuable, unique content for those questions in order to get more search traffic. Case in point, I wrote that post, which contained the answer to the question, on February 3rd. Today, two days later, my blog post ranks #1 for the query.

I tried a few other queries to see how sites are stacking up. I purposely didn’t add keywords that I assume would help me get more accurate results (such as “2008″) since most regular searchers wouldn’t add them either.

Which candidates support tax cuts?”
youdecide08.foxnews.com ranks first with a story about Republican candidates talking about tax cuts. No candidate sites rank on the first page. If I were running a marketing campaign for a candidate that was pushing for tax cuts, I’d make sure to have a page on the site devoted to this.

Which candidates support gay rights ?”
Once again, no candidate sites rank in the top 10, and the third result is about the 2004 elections (for cyclical events, make sure to update your content for the next event!). I didn’t click through to any results, but I thought that democraticunderground.com (position #5) did a good job in the title and description of providing text that made me think it was the result that would best answer my question.

I asked several other questions (about environmental issues, the war in Iraq, the economy) and official candidate sites weren’t returned on the first page for any of them. Candidate sites could be well served by a page that talks about the details of each major issue and how the candidate leans. Notably, sites like Yahoo! Answers and discussion forums were returned in the top 10 a lot for these types of queries, so candidates, political groups, and other interested groups could get more visibility by being active on these types of sites.

Overall, there’s a lot of opportunity for smart marketers and candidates and clearly, internet usage for political information will only increase as time goes on. It’s likely that by the 2012 election, more than half of Americans will use the internet as their primary information source and candidates will use social networking tools and online media just as often as they do personal and television appearances. Maybe we’ll even be voting online by then. I won’t hold my breath for that last one.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Search & Society: General | Search Engines: Government Search Engines | SEO: General

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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