Being an incumbent has its advantages. Donors know you. The media knows you. Constituents know you. Even Google knows you. And sometimes, that’s where the trouble starts.
The search giant knows how many websites you have, how long you’ve had them, how many people link to them, and how often you appear in the news. With all that information, Google tries to figure out which search terms people use when looking for you online.
So whether you’re an incumbent or a challenger, it’s essential to get some technology magic working in your favor. One way to do it is via Search Engine Optimization, or SEO—the practice of creating, maintaining and promoting a website’s content so that Google displays your websites ahead of others for certain search terms.
To determine page ranking, or which search results to display first, Google takes into account more than 200 factors, including the content and URL of each website, as well as how “reputable” the site is—essentially how many other websites link to it using similar words or phrases.
Additionally, Google tailors its search results for individual users based on past searches. (To control for this sort of personalization, all Google searches cited in this article were done after location information, Google account information and browsing history were cleared from the browser.)
“You must brand yourself before someone else brands you,” advises Wesley Donehue, an online strategist who heads Donehue Direct. “You must ensure that someone finds the content you want them to read when they Google your name.”
When people are looking for information about a candidate on the web, the first thing they’re likely to do is type in the candidate’s name. In that instance, the candidate is going to want the first results to be something he or she has control over, like the campaign page, social media profiles or op-eds.
If voters are looking for information on a district itself, they might search for broader terms, such as the state and district number. These, according to Matthew Dybwad, partner at the political media firm Craft, are the swing voters—“the most coveted viewers for any campaign.” At that point, he says, “it’s really a race to relevancy. If you use SEO to position your website so that voters interested in relevant issues come across it first, you have a better chance of grabbing and holding their attention.”
An Incumbent Edge?
Given that they’ve been in office and the public sphere longer, incumbents typically have an advantage when it comes to SEO—something smart campaigns can work to their advantage. “Incumbents have the benefit of a long life on the Internet, with perhaps thousands of content pages, videos and pictures indexed on Google,” says online and new media consultant Patrick Hynes.
And many of those pages link back to a website maintained by incumbents (which includes the official .gov page, former and current campaign pages and an often carefully monitored Wikipedia page). Not only are more people talking about incumbents, more people are directing traffic to their official pages, which Google takes into account when determining search rankings. And that can make it more difficult for challengers.
“The odds are stacked against you if you’re a challenger,” says Rob Ousbey, vice president of the SEO firm Distilled, “especially if you’re working on a new site.” Ousbey notes that some candidates have had the same sites for years, allowing them to build up pages and pages of material using the search terms that people might be entering into Google.
But just because the incumbent has a larger web presence, doesn’t mean he or she is taking advantage of their SEO opportunities. Take Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), for example. If you Google the congressman’s full name, the top of the page is exactly what you might expect. You get the official congressional website, his campaign page, a Wikipedia entry and his social media accounts.
But scroll down and you’re likely to see critical news articles and websites about Cravaack, including TakeDownCravaack.com, a site dedicated to ousting the Tea Party supported Republican from Congress.
In Cravaack’s district, at least one campaign website seems to be maximizing its SEO efforts, but it’s not the incumbent or the challenger. Instead, it’s the district’s Republican party. When you search “Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District,” it’s the party’s page that emerges as the third result. That places it one spot above Cravaack’s campaign website and five spots before Cravaack’s congressional site. Results for Cravaack’s opponent, Democrat Tarryl Clark, don’t even appear on the first page of results.
Ousbey suggests the higher search ranking for the party’s page is a result of the structure of the page itself, rather than the number of people who are linking to it.
“The page is probably a stronger page,” he says, meaning that even if Cravaack’s congressional site is well-linked, “it could be less optimized. It wouldn’t be the first time that a page built in bulk by the government wasn’t well optimized.”
Explaining how the party’s page is better optimized for terms like “Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District,” Ousbey noted that the URL contains the state and district abbreviation, “mn8.” The party also uses the phrase “Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District” throughout the site’s pages.
With some incumbents choosing not to take advantage of the SEO opportunities they have, the online field is wide open for challengers to improve their web presence through SEO. Mia Love, the Republican running for the newly formed 4th District in Utah against Rep. Jim Matheson, is one challenger on top of her SEO game.
When you search “Utah 4th Congressional District,” about half of the results on the first page are about Love, and none of the results are driven by Matheson. Part of the equation is that the 4th District is newly-created, so it has no true incumbent. Google “Jim Matheson” and a news article about
Love will likely appear towards the bottom of the page. In it, she expresses her optimism about taking on Matheson in November. In addition to the search rankings, Love has a fleshed out Wikipedia page, complete with biographical information and picture. When you search for her name in Google, you’ll see a brief bio and picture—borrowed from Wikipedia—alongside the results, thanks to a new Google feature. Additionally, Google lets you know that people who are searching for “Mia Love” are also searching for “Jim Matheson,” and vice versa. If she were without a Wikipedia page, the brief bio, picture, and the search suggestion could be missing.
Forming the Strategy
There is hope for those who haven’t developed an SEO strategy just yet. On the technical side, Ousbey suggests some basic SEO best practices for challengers.
“If you were a challenger and wanted to optimize a campaign page, it would be pretty straightforward SEO,” he says, suggesting candidates use popular and relevant search terms in the content of the website, encouraging others to link and to promote it across social media channels.
Another avenue worth exploring is Paid Search, says Dybwad, which is Google’s ad platform that lets users pay to place text-based advertisements on specific search result pages. Let’s say a candidate wanted to run on a platform of creating jobs for his district. Whenever a Google user located in that district’s ZIP codes searched for phrases related to jobs in the area, the candidate could pay to have an ad appear next to the search results.
“It’s a great way to get your name out there for terms that you don’t really have a shot with,” Dybwad says. “In most cases it’s still dirt cheap.”
Ultimately, there are no shortcuts or quick fixes when it comes to the time a campaign should spend on SEO.
“It’s not the kind of thing where the campaign can just buy something. It really has to be attended to every week,” says Dybwad. “The results of it, other than your page ranking in Google, are not immediately evident.” But when done well, learning to optimize the message for Google can pay off. “It is a long term labor,” he says, “and it’s really where the art meets the science.”
Kate Tummarello is a staff writer for InTheCapital