Friday, April 20, 2007

Your Political Website is Invisible

We’ve seen (two SEO/SEM specialists) quite an uptick in the news and coverage of national campaigns engaging in Politics 2.0 – leveraging Web 2.0 "user-driven" techniques and tools to attract delegates, contributions and generally create noise. Things like establishing Facebook or Myspace pages (and convincing others to do so), letting loose viral videos on YouTube, fostering like-minded blogrolls and carnivals, and conducting Pay-Per-Click (PPC) campaigns for their names, messages and even on the competition (i.e. you search for "Clinton", you get an ad for "Obama"). Can this be effective for State or local races?

We think it certainly can, mostly because it’s really not being done at all right now (anybody moving fast on this right now should see immediate results). The circumstances, for example in Northern Virginia (which prides itself on technical competence and awareness), are such that most Senate, House and Local election candidates are doing nearly nothing to enhance their online profile for the benefit of the online community, the casual surfers and the search engines. That’s right, search engines and aggregators like MSN, Google, Dogpile, Surfwax...they want timely and relevant information about the campaigns just as much as human constituents. It helps attract activity, clicks, newsletter sign-ups and ultimately advertising revenue.

The more established or Internet-savvy politicians certainly are taking tactical steps known to most reasonable people, like setting up a website, perhaps starting a blog, even paying for a banner advertisement or two on a popular newspaper site or political blog. Well, that’s nice, but how many constituents actually end up seeing this information, or knowing where to look? Probably only the delegates on the email list, and the small handful of political junkies blogging incessantly about the campaign news extremes (either really positive or negative). Basically, without good "Search Engine Optimization and Marketing" (SEO/SEM) actions and planning, your political site is invisible to nearly all your local Internet users.

Strategic steps to maximize a candidate’s online presence and exposure of positive messages (or remediation of negative messages) to even the most casual Internet users must start early, and be managed on nearly a daily basis. Starting early, because most online venues for local race information have very low page rankings, and it can take weeks to months to improve visibility. Managing from a daily basis means the website(s) and messages can’t simply be "tweaked" once – the competition can quickly overcome and negate your visibility, and search engines aren’t really interested in static content that’s never refreshed, syndicated, copied or discussed. Plus constituent interests and observations tend to change very quickly, influenced by the news around them.

So, how does one go about improving a time-sensitive political profile online, targeted to local constituents? Well, it starts with an "as-is" assessment, based on a variety of SEO/SEM factors relevant to the local and regional web-o-sphere. The assessment looks at things like the placement of links on local directories, relevant content and discussion in local forums and blogs with good page ranking, and the features of the candidate’s website in particular that make it attractive (or not) to the 'bots….the army of software agents employed by the hundreds of search engines crawling the web (if you’re just starting, just worry about Google and Yahoo). The assessment is not all science, there’s a lot of art to understanding whether online presence, in certain contexts, is a good thing or a bad thing – and for local races, it’s best usually to work with SEO/SEM professionals who know the area, the people and the issues.

We did a preliminary assessment on the Virginia Senate District 33 race, with John Andrews, Patricia Phillips and Mark Herring (incumbent). We looked a bit at this about 2 months ago; at that time, Herring had the typical incumbent’s online, government and news-infused presence, though with little support from the search engines. John Andrews had literally no online presence, and Patricia Phillips had a decent website started, a few news mentions and actually a YouTube video. Casual surfers and queries on Google, Yahoo and MSN, for the candidates and the issues, usually didn’t turn up much at all. (John Andrews had the extra hurdle of a Colorado Senator with the same name).

Turn up the heat a bit today with the June Primary coming up, and we see a bit more activity offline from the candidates (Andrews is on a major paperchase), but hardly any change online. This isn’t good for the candidates, given how long it usually takes to establish free (i.e. organic) visibility; to kickstart the online advertising money in a short timeframe, money will need to be spent (just look at all the money the "Campaign for Loudoun’s Future" folks are spending on Google PPC). Here’s a brief summary of our proprietary evaluation, which ranks and weights the presence of keywords/key phrases important to the candidates, their positions, the area and the election event, among the various available and recommended (by us) local, regional and event national content distributors (i.e. websites and blogs).

Scale – 0 to 10 for the local/regional online context; 0 is no presence other than a random mention somewhere, 10 is the level of popularity you’d find searching on the term “Loudoun”.

4 - Herring’s online presence has improved linearly, with the benefits of being in office – even has a Wikipedia entry; other than that, no major upticks driven by his campaign or supporters – except for some negative publicity generated via the blogosphere and by his competition (Andrews) regarding the recent General Assembly Transportation vote.

2 - Phillips’ web presence has improved reasonably, due mainly to a website with some well-placed content (but no SEO), a few good press releases and material that’s been out and about for several months now (time on the web is a major factor is search engine rankings).

1 - Andrews now has basic web presence, if you know his name and candidacy info (i.e. Virginia vs. Colorado), aside from a very well targeted online press release and the first online regional political advertisement for this race on Dulles South Online.

So, what does this mean? We’ll only really know after the Primary and the Election – but given the rapidly growing and localizing number of Internet users participating in community dialogue, the national news on this topic among the Presidential candidates, and given the fact that local elections are typically very under-attended (so every vote counts), a little SEO/SEM should go a long, long way towards bringing home the votes.

Contact us at KME Web Design for more information or help. Next up, we’ll evaluate the local BOS race.

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