It is quite puzzling to me that so many politicians still haven’t grasped the sheer importance of search engine optimization (SEO) and online reputation management (ORM), despite knowing that their career depends on their image. The bar chart on the left illustrates the importance of ORM, which will only grow as the American population is becoming increasingly tech savvy.
Let’s go through the three basic rules of reputation, and see how SEO relates to each of them.
No such thing as bad publicity – SERPs
First of all, is it even true that all publicity is good publicity? Bad publicity did in fact launch Kim Kardashian’s and Paris Hilton’s careers, and increase Seinfeld DVD sales after Michael Richards made racist remarks at a comedy club. However, it can only be devastating for politicians because their ideal image is that of a wise decision maker.
So how do you combat bad publicity on the web? By creating and promoting favorable content, and getting it to appear high on the search engine results pages (SERPs). It is common knowledge among the SEO community that the search results on the first page receive the majority of traffic (75% to be more specific). According to a study by GroupM and Neo Mammalian Studios, among the UK population, for the government and NGO category, the first search result received 55% of the clicks, the second, 15%, and third, 10%. For the current events and news category, the first search result received half of the clicks, the second, 10%, and third, 9%.
- A website with the politician’s name in the domain gets a huge boost over other websites because search algorithms highly leverage domain names for keywords. Creating a firstnamelastname.com along with other websites on the side with the politician’s name is recommended. Some examples I found on the first page of search results for the politicians’ names in Google are explorehuckabee.com, dailypaul.com, and giffordsforcongress.com. On a side note, having your own website would be immensely valuable because you would be able to build an e-mail list, and send content to your constituents and supporters directly on a regular basis.
- Facebook and Twitter pages rank very well, so setting up those profiles is a must. Wikipedia articles also rank well, but they are much trickier since neither the politician nor his or her affiliates are allowed to create them (Wikipedia strives for neutrality), not to mention that others can edit the page. Having said that, having your own Wikipedia article signals prominence, so junior politicians may want to encourage a non-affiliated person to create one.
- One great way to increase online visibility is to target keywords related to issues. Searching for “campaign finance reform,” “cap and trade,” and “gun control” did not result in a first page result for a politician’s website, nor a related search term, with the exception of “Obama” for all three. It should not be that difficult, for example, for Senator Diane Feinstein to have her website rank high for the keywords “gun control” given that she recently introduced “The Assault Weapons Ban of 2013” bill.
Timing is everything – fresh content and social media
Timing has become crucially important in the SEO world because social media has experienced explosive growth, and search engines have begun to prioritize fresh web content, especially that related to trends and recent events. For example, when searching for “davos summit,” the results for this year’s summit will dominate the results, even without “2013” in the query.
- When uploading content related to a hot topic, the sooner you upload it to your website, the better chance of you receiving more traffic, and in some cases even exponentially more traffic, because more websites and feeds will be linking to you. Therefore, make sure you are timely with press releases and blog articles, especially if they are related to something that will make news.
- Search engines give priority to websites that are updated frequently, which is one of the reasons that the Huffington Post and Forbes rank so well. Obtaining links from these websites are helpful because they can convert your content from being stale to fresh, even if you do not update the actual content.
- Try to set a schedule and write regularly. Search engines will crawl your website more frequently, thus increasing the chance of higher ranks for your pages. Try to upload new content at least twice a week.
Guilty by association – links and search suggestions
Just as people judge you by the people you hang out with, so do search engines by the websites you are connected to. Good links are those that have good content, low bounce rates, high traffic, and overall link authority.
- Websites that have an extension of .edu and .gov carry high authority. Offering to be a guest speaker at a school would be one of the easiest ways to obtain a link in a .edu website. If you have a partnership with an institute for a study abroad or internship program, request that they link to you. Some ways to do this is to include your website in a list of internship opportunities, or encourage an intern to write a short article. Leverage your connections to obtain links in the .gov websites, which should be quite easy if you are a politician.
- Search engines are becoming better at detecting and penalizing websites that engage in Black Hat SEO tactics, such as cloaking, keyword stuffing or link spamming. Stay away from it. It looks bad for brands; it looks even worse for politicians (For an example, refer to article “Newt Gingrich’s Twitter Followers Are 8% Human.”)
You don’t have to actively pursue Black Hat tactics to be penalized. Even having lots of spam in your comments and numerous incoming links from spammy websites can hurt your website (these are easy to detect as they tend to contain lots of links, ads, and poor content). Getting into all the different tactics and tools related to negative SEO is beyond the scope of this article, but just remember to keep an eye on the spam and incoming links.
- Most search engines now offer suggestions to correct the spelling or to provide associated key phrases other users have inserted for the query. Once a search engine detects the search queries that are often associated, the suggested key phrases appear in the search bar and on the SERPs.
This function oftentimes arouses the curiosity of a user who had no prior intention of doing a search for a particular suggested phrase. Therefore, the moment a phrase joins the list of the search suggestions could easily become a tipping point.
An interesting aspect of Autocomplete is that the phrases can differ per category. For example, typing “Newt Gingrich” in the Google Images search bar brings up “meme,” which does not appear in the normal search bar.
There is not much you can do to suppress the associated phrases, except for doing something noteworthy that would get people to search for other things related to you (although some people outside of the US have sued Google to get rid of some of the suggested key phrases). Just try to stay away from hookers, bribes, and extramarital affairs.
The heavy influence of the internet today allows politics to be more transparent and accessible. Politicians should seize this opportunity to send out direct and unfiltered messages and readily interact with the masses. Learning about SEO and ORM would certainly help raise online visibility to capture interest and educate the public on the many issues that affect us every day.