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Search About to Upset the Political Applecart

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According to a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll published back in May, 56 percent of the people in Iowa who are likely to participate in the state's presidential caucuses in January “search the Internet for candidates' stands on issues.” By comparison, 94 percent watch candidate debates, 93 percent read newspaper stories about the campaigns and 79 percent go to candidate events.

This seems to indicate that search engines have not eclipsed newspapers and television as the primary source of political information – at least not in Iowa, where half of those who say they definitely or probably will attend the Democratic and Republican caucuses are 55 years old or older.

However, 2008 could be the year when search – from news search and video search to universal search and blended search – upsets a lot of the conventional wisdom.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 75 million Americans over the age of 18 look online for news or information about politics or the upcoming campaigns. That's more people than voted for either George Bush (62 million) or John Kerry (59 million) in the 2004 presidential election.

The online population and the voting population largely overlap each other.

  • 69% of registered voters are Internet users
    • 79% of registered voters under age 60 are Internet users
    • 84% of registered voters under age 30 are Internet users
  • 63% of those who voted in the last election are Internet users
    • 81% of those under age 60 who voted in the last election are Internet users
    • 87% of those under age 30 who voted in the last election are Internet users

And according to Pew, the relative value of the Internet to politically active citizens is growing. Twice as many people cited the Internet as their primary source of their political news and information in 2006 compared to the most recent off-year election in 2002. And it's likely to continue its upward climb in 2008.

And use of Internet for getting political news is more strongly associated with voting than use of other news channels. According to Pew, there is a statistically significant correlation between using the Internet to get political news and information and the actual act of voting – and it is an effect that holds up even when you control for all the things you'd expect would predict the likelihood of voting.

While this may be less true in the Iowa caucuses, where 79 percent of caucus-bound Iowans go to candidate events, it may be more true on “Super Tuesday,” when voters in many other states first go to the polls on February 5 to choose the leading presidential candidates.

Many people like to use the Internet because of the convenience of using it anytime and at the user's discretion. And there is a widespread belief among users that the online environment offers more in-depth information as well as a greater variety of voices and perspectives compared to other media.

For example, in the 2006 mid-term campaign:

  • 52% of campaign Internet users looked for information about candidates' positions on the issues or voting records.
  • 41% of campaign Internet users checked online about the accuracy of claims made by or about the candidates.
  • 32% of campaign Internet users watched video clips about the candidates or the election online.
  • 27% of campaign Internet users searched online for candidate endorsements or ratings by outside organizations.
  • 9% of campaign Internet users signed up to receive emails from candidates or campaigns.
  • 5% of campaign Internet users contributed money to a candidate.

When they go online, people use all kinds of sites to gather political information. In the 2006 mid-term campaign:

  • 60% got news and information about the campaign from news search engines such as Yahoo News or Google News.
  • 60% got news and information about the campaign from TV network websites such as CNN.com or ABCNews.com.
  • 48% got news and information about the campaign from local news organization websites.
  • 31% got news and information about the campaign from websites of major national newspapers such as The New York Times or USA Today.
  • 24% got news and information about the campaign from issue-oriented websites.
  • 20% got news and information about the campaign from blogs.
  • 20% got news and information about the campaign from international news organization websites, such as the BBC.
  • 20% got news and information about the campaign from websites created by candidates.
  • 19% got news and information about the campaign from news satire websites like The Daily Show or The Onion.
  • 19% got news and information about the campaign from the websites of radio news organizations, such as National Public Radio.

Based on the data above, online PR should definitely play a much bigger role in “The War Room” in 2008 than it did when the documentary of the Bill Clinton 1992 presidential campaign was made.

And, based on the data above, press release optimization for news search engines may be three times more valuable to presidential campaigns than website optimization for web search engines.

Plus, Pew's surveys were conducted before Google universal search was launched in May, blending results from its video, image and news search engines with those it gathers from crawling web pages. Since then, Ask has launched Ask 3D, Microsoft has launched blended search, and Yahoo has launched its own version of blended search, with updated Shortcuts to include news, image, video and other categories of vertical search results.

Why should this change who gets invited into the war room?

Well, conduct a web search for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or another major candidate using Google, Yahoo Search, Live Search, or Ask.com. If you don't find news results with an image above the fold, then it's been a slow day for that campaign.

So, I suspect when Pew gets around to factoring in universal and blended search results into future surveys, 2008 could be a landslide year for getting news and information about the campaign from web search engines such as Google and Yahoo Search.

As for Iowa, 81 percent of likely caucus participants in the 18-to-34 age bracket, 71 percent of those 35-to-54, and 42 percent of those 55 or older have searched the Internet for candidates' stands on issues. That's a majority of likely caucus-goers.

Maybe someone should write a memo to Patti Solis Doyle, David Plouffe, Michael DuHaime, Beth Myers, or the campaign manager of one of the other major candidates for president. Better yet, just send them a link to this story.

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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