It’s going to be a while before we see a political campaign that’s “less digital” than the last one. Budgets keep getting bigger, and investing in online outreach continues to provide candidates with the biggest bang for their buck. But selling voters on politicians and policies isn’t remotely similar to selling, well, anything else.
But SEO is a viable strategy for political campaigns. Politicians (and campaign managers) work hard to “control the message,” which usually means three basic things:
- Influencing what people say about the candidate. (Sounds a lot like online reputation management!)
- Making sure the candidate’s views on particular news stories and events get heard. (Sounds like typical “real-time SEO” — ranking for news stories during the news cycle.)
- Making sure people looking for information on issues and elections find the candidate’s site. (Classic SEO: evergreen content for evergreen keywords.)
Online Reputation Management
Anyone who is partisan enough to get nominated by one party will be disliked by the roughly 50% of the population that leans toward the other party. And they’ll have up days and down days, so there will be times when public opinion is almost universally against them. Which means that political campaigns exist in a state of permanent reputation-management crisis.
For politicians, online reputation management means:
- Ensuring that their site ranks for their own name. It’s easy enough for Candidate Obama, but not so easy for Candidate Smith.
- Keeping an eye on Wikipedia — it’s against Wikipedia’s rules to alter your own entry, but it’s fine to tailor on-site content toward addressing Wiki-based critiques.
- In some cases, politicians may be able to register multiple domains, in order to control the SERP. [name]2012.com, [name]2012volunteers.com, support[name].com etc. could all legitimately work as standalone pages. They might dilute some link equity, but that can be mitigated by using them to deep-link to content on the main site.
Controlling The News Cycle
Political campaigns get into the news and stay there. Even campaigns that are reportedly collapsing poll better than the ones that aren’t reported on at all. But politicians need to invest in SEO in order to influence how stories get reported.
Just look at Herman Cain, for example: Some recent polls cast Cain as the front-runner, and his “9-9-9″ tax plan defined a recent debate. But the big story about his tax plan is its similarities to the tax scheme in Sim City. That’s natural; even the most popular politicians are subject to vicious attacks.
What could the Cain campaign do about this? In the pre-Internet world, the right way to handle this kind of controversy is to let it blow over. But the Internet extends the news cycle; the story breaks one day, gets reported and re-reported everywhere the next, and gets searched the week after — which turns a “no comment” into a unanimously negative story.
Instead, the Cain campaign could write its own rebuttal, with a title like, “Did Herman Cain get ’9-9-9′ from Sim City? No. He got it from his 19-year business career.” (Yes, that’s going to lead to an ellipsis in the SERP. But an ellipsis on the SERP is better than being out of it entirely.)
Rank For Issues — If You Can
Larger, national campaigns may want to target head terms related to specific political issues. It would be a major coup for the Obama website to rank for “unemployment” plus some policy or law-related terms.
That’s a big challenge, since most of the searches for “unemployment,” or “jobs,” “taxes,” “health care” and other such terms, are mostly searches designed to solve associated problems (file for unemployment, find jobs, pay taxes, etc.).
But it’s still possible to do an extended for of online reputation management: Someone is going to rank No. 1 for a term like “Romney health care” or “Obama deficit.” And if Romney and Obama aren’t investing in being No. 1, they’re ceding the terms of the debate to whoever does.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.