If you’re like me, you’ve probably come across a meme of Donald Trump bragging about having bought JebBush.com and setting the site to redirect to his own campaign page. The meme is partially truthful – JebBush.com does indeed redirect to DonaldJTrump.com. However upon further research this humorous coup is slightly too good to be true.
For one, JebBush.com is not the aspiring presidential candidate’s official campaign website – Jeb2016.com is. Secondly, while the redirect is real, there is absolutely no evidence that the domain ownership is in any way related to the Trump campaign, as some quick internet detective work by GainTap and Politico prove. Even the infamous tweet did not originate from Trump’s official Twitter profile. Still, in effect all of that domain’s authority is redirected to a rival political candidate’s online presence.
Is it still really, really funny? Yes. And are there some interesting takeaways in terms of SEO in the political realm? Absolutely.
I was inspired by the Trump/Bush farce to explore why SEO is so important to politicians, and why SEO can help separate the pretenders from the viable candidates who may actually be elected the 45th President of the United States in November 2016.
Political SEO part I—owning your name
Whether you are a small business owner or a candidate for the presidency, SEO matters. After all, what is SEO but an attempt to direct traffic toward your site? And what is traffic but potential customers (or voters)? Yet in the political realm, SEO is often neglected. Perhaps a broader conclusion can be drawn about the outdated philosophies and understandings of many politicians and their campaign teams, but we’ll leave that subject for another day.
A clear demonstration of American politicians’ lack of prioritization of SEO is evident simply by Googling many of their names. As late as 2013, Chris Christie’s official website did not appear on the first ten pages of results. Until recently, Rick Santorum had a not-safe-for-work Google problem. That these once-hopeful presidential candidates have now dropped out of the race is certainly not directly attributable to their SERP struggles. Still, their SEO invisibility is an undeniable factor that will only increase in importance as Google becomes the political information gatekeeper of choice for voters (for better or worse).
As a political candidate, your name is everything. Simply the utterance of “Hillary” or “Donald” sends reverberations of reverence or repugnance down the spines of voters, and “Bernie” has become an icon in his own right.
Your official website is the only place you can truly control the message and communicate your exact platform with no interference. When a potential voter types your name into Google and HuffPo and Facebook and Time outrank you for your own name, it’s placing your message in the hands of media outlets who have ambitions and motivations that may not align with your own.
It should go without saying that as an aspiring political candidate you should rank on the first page (if not the first result) for your own name. Even more impressive are leading candidates like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, who rank #1 for their first names without any other context, even in Canada.
Political SEO part II—owning the issues
Owning your name is an essential start, but it’s not the be-all-end-all when it comes to optimizing your online presence as a politician. As a voter, if you want to know about Bernie Sanders’ or Marco Rubio’s positions on immigration, health care, or education, you might visit their individual sites. But what if you want to know about this information in a general sense? You might google something like “education funding” or “repeal Obamacare” or “register to vote Ohio.” This is where political candidates and their enthusiastic supporters can increase visibility in a meaningful way.
In November 2015, Search Engine Land columnist Tom Demers explored how a VoteForBernie.org, a microsite developed by Bernie Sanders supporters was outranking official pages on topics like “register to vote democratic primary” in places like Massachusetts, California, New York, and Texas.
The most impressive finding by Demers was that this site was not trying to rank – there were no clever SEO manipulations going on. Instead, the creators wrote the most relevant, most helpful, and most focused content possible on the given topic/keyword. Visitors found the site, actively shared it on social, and the cycle repeated.
Here is how this Bernie Sanders microsite owned the issue. The creators recognized a problem and provided a solution. Unlike typical campaign sites, which focus only on their message, their issues, their upcoming events etc. this microsite addressed information for which voters were actively searching.
According to a 2015 study by Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson entitled “The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections,” research revealed that “biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more.” This effect will only become more prominent in the coming years as a) voters turn to search engines as their first stop for political information b) political candidates and their teams begin to understand the importance of SEO.
As political teams begin to prioritize SEO and understand the consequences of something as simple as a rogue domain, I can’t imagine a mistake of similar magnitude to the JebBush.com fiasco being made in the 2020 election cycle.