Net Election

Searching for the Right Candidate

Making political sites easy to find is a challenge for campaigns and for the search engines that try to index their pages. 

Slate, the Industry Standard, and join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Campaign staffs are long accustomed to worrying about getting their candidate on the evening news. Now they face a new concern: What kind of play is the candidate getting on Internet search engines and other online Web directories?

For many candidates, the answer to that question is not good. And as the Web sprawls out beyond 1 billion pages, with no friendly librarian to keep track of them all, the search-engine problem is more than an academic issue for campaigns.

If surfers looking for political information don’t already know or cannot correctly guess a candidate, party, or interest group’s exact Web address, chances are they will visit a search engine. And chances are just as good that these site-seekers will wind up lost in a thicket of online weirdness.

For instance, type the words “Hillary Clinton” into the popular Yahoo! directory, which combines searches with a vast database of links that are submitted, reviewed, and ranked by actual human beings. Once a user gets beyond the wire stories and Yahoo! directory categories, one of the first direct Web links takes you to the Hillary Clinton Forum, an unofficial Hillary fan site. Other top links include a site proclaiming Clinton the “Sexiest Woman Alive” and another hawking ”Hillary Clinton’s Pen Pal: A Guide to Life and Lingo in Federal Prison“—a book by “an ex-federal prisoner and former professor” who wants to be the first lady’s “helpful pal preparing her for life in the penitentiary.”

Nowhere to be found is Clinton’s official New York Senate campaign site. There is a Yahoo! category page for Clinton’s campaign, which does include a prominent link to the first lady’s site, but that still puts her URL two links away from the initial Yahoo! search result. Type in “Rick Lazio,” on the other hand, and the first hits that Yahoo! returns include the Republican New York Senate hopeful’s official congressional page and his new campaign site.

The Yahoo! results illustrate two phenomena: Search-engine play varies wildly from candidate to candidate and, at least as far as politics on the Web is concerned, it is better to be unknown than to be a celebrity. The more someone has been in the news and the subject of rumor and gossip, as Hillary Clinton has been for more than eight years, the more junk is likely to accumulate in search engines that rank their results by the number of times a search term appears on a given page.

Many search engines also rank results based on hidden keywords (called “meta tags”) slipped into a page’s underlying HTML code. Others rely on complex computer algorithms or staff to read submissions and rank sites.

But even if a candidate such as Clinton registers her official site taking into account all of these methods, the sheer volume of competing pages about that candidate can push his or her official page down the list.

“You can’t really guarantee anything if you are in that broad of a category,” said Kevin Nitsche, an Internet specialist who helped Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign get good search-engine play during the Republican presidential primaries. “It’s just like if someone types in ‘sex’ or ‘porn.’ Because there is so much of that out there, you can’t guarantee that your site is going to be up at the top.”

Nitsche and the McCain campaign helped ensure the candidate would show up high in search-engine queries by registering not just the site’s official address but also a list of other words that searchers might enter while seeking McCain—or, as it turns out, George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole. (Click here for the list of words the McCain campaign hoped would point surfers in its direction.)

Search engines operate in a variety of ways and maintain different policies for keyword registration. Some search engines do not use computer programs to automatically troll the Web and index sites. America Online’s “Kids Only” search engine is one example. Type in the words “Democratic National Committee” and the first site that comes up is the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County, Calif. The National Jewish Committee on Scouting, a site on Australian Cross Country Skiing, and something called the National Gymnastics Judges Assoc. Inc.  are also listed prominently. These groups, undoubtedly interesting in their own right, don’t have a great deal to do with Democratic Party politics. The only political sites that make the AOL list, in fact, are Republican-related. In addition to the San Luis Obispo County GOP, other top links include the George Bush presidential library and the Republican National Committee.

AOL spokeswoman Lisa Gibby said that the kids page search only shows sites submitted to and approved by a third party, in this case the Learning Co. (indicating that the Web wizards over at the DNC have a little work to do). Of the registered and approved sites, those with descriptions best matching the search terms entered are the first to pop up.

Feed the words ”Al Gore” into the Lycos search engine and the first Web site listed is for the Al Gore Caption Game. Gore’s official presidential campaign page shows up high up on the Lycos list, but below several other parody sites.

One resource for campaigns looking for information on the rules governing each Web indexer is the Search Engine Watch newsletter. It offers tips on each site, such as an explanation of how the Google search engine (which has contracted to use as its Web search tool) evaluates the number of times a given page is linked to by other pages as an indicator of a page’s relevance. Pages that other sites link to many times shoot to the top of Google’s list, while pages not linked to by other sites sink to the bottom. But even the mighty Google stumbles a bit on the “Hillary Clinton” test, ranking the official campaign site well below something purporting to be “The Pyschobiography of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

In addition to figuring out how to wrangle with the traditional Internet search engines, campaigns must also deal with new “pay-per-click” engines that allow sites to register for a small fee as well as to bid on keywords. Generally, each time a site gets a visit generated by a pay-per-click search engine, the site pays the search engine the amount of its keyword bid. (One could imagine a bidding war taking place between two campaigns for the right to the keyword “reformer.”)

GoTo is among the more popular of these new sites. Here, again, the official Hillary Clinton site is nowhere to be found, indicating that the campaign has not paid to register. Lazio, however, is front and center on GoTo, his campaign and House pages occupying top slots.

With the methods of searching, indexing, and categorizing Web sites growing almost as fast as the Web itself, the search for an easy answer to these challenges may be as elusive as the first lady’s Web site.