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SEO for President

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According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 75 million voting-age Americans have already used the Internet this year to find information about political candidates. Earlier this year, a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed that 80 percent of likely caucus-goers between 18 and 34 years old have or are likely to search online for information candidates' stands on the issues.

With the Iowa caucuses scant days away, it's become clear that search is poised to play a major role in the 2008 Presidential campaigns.

Yet a stroll through the sites of major candidates and minor players on both sides of the aisle is not a showcase of shrewd SEO tactics that are built to attract these searchers in droves, to say the least. Neither are these sites that are just one or two advanced tactics away from pushing their traffic into overdrive.

Not in the slightest. Holes this big would sink normal sites and create e-commerce job openings by the dozens. Right and left (literally), these are sites that are not taking advantage of simple on-site SEO practices. They are not search-friendly and in some cases are barely indexable, but are saved only by large numbers of inbound links.

The Range Online Media SEO team completed an audit of the political candidates' sites, and I've done my best to detail the improvements needed for each major campaign throughout the article. I feel compelled to say that any omission is not an endorsement of a candidate's campaign or tactics. For the record, I'm an undecided voter and if I've missed someone, you can safely assume their SEO is desperately in need of help, too. Now, my disclaimer aside, each of the candidates' sites is struggling to overcome issues like these:

  1. Duplicate, non-descriptive and overly long title tags. The title tag is widely regarded as the most important aspect of a page to ranking, but it seems most campaigns view it as a throwaway job. Rudy Giuliani, despite keeping issue sections to simple and search-friendly terms, made every single Issues page's header the generic "Rudy Giuliani : Issues."

    Likewise, "Hillary Clinton.com : Issues : Strengthening Our Democracy" gives readers and engines alike no idea what content will actually be discovered on the page and is therefore a fairly worthless title tag.

  2. Lack of, or poor use of, header tags. This is the most egregious and widespread issue. Frequently, H1 and H2 tags aren't used and, when they are, it's often on the same terms on every page. John Edwards' campaign takes this a step further by placing an H1 tag around its logo, a practice that is helpful (according to some circles) to the visually impaired by making the alt text more prominent in site readers as the page's main topic. However, the fact that this H1 tag is the same on every page renders even this extra step meaningless in practice.

  3. Splash pages, JavaScript navigation and other search stoppers. All campaigns have gone with java script navigation, often with no straight HTML links to the pages underneath. Fred Thompson's campaign has gone as far as to place his issues content completely behind JavaScript expanders. Splash pages asking for donations when one first arrives can destroy a site by diffusing its front page's influence, especially when the site vacillates between using them and not using them.

  4. And, of course, nary a sitemap to be found. While this could be mitigated with XML sitemaps, what's the likelihood that these sites blew off so many other aspects of site ownership and management – except for this particularly tedious exercise?

...and the list goes on. Even if these sites' weaknesses in coding were corrected, they would still have a major and ironic flaw: the lack of keyword research and understanding of searchers' behavior.

In this age of framing an issue with the right words (pro-choice vs. pro-life), campaigns have forgotten to do their keyword research. 'Keeping Americans Safe' (Mitt Romney) and 'Strengthening America Overseas' (Barack Obama) may make for majestic lines in a campaign speech, but when Americans are literally searching for candidates' views on 'defense' and 'terrorism', they make for pretty useless page titles and header tags. What does it matter that you have a PageRank like a Gold-medal gymnastics score if the word 'immigration' isn't to be found on your immigration issues page?

For followers of the campaign thus far, it should come as no surprise which campaign is closest to the mark. Dr. Ron Paul, an otherwise obscure Republican, is supported by a swath of passionate, Internet-savvy followers who, fittingly, can often be found with signs urging readers to "Google Ron Paul". Despite polling somewhere in the low single-digits in MSM polls, he has had the two most successful days of fundraising in GOP history which were centered around – you guessed it – donations through the Internet.

His supporters have clearly had an effect on his site's SEO work as his site is the closest to being ready for prime time. It uses unique title tags throughout the site, search-friendly URLs that utilize keywords (unlike Mike Huckabee) and are based on directories rather than pages (John McCain cannot claim this). It uses header tags that cascade smoothly through the topics of each page in ways no other campaign has taken the time to do. The site uses straight-talk names for page topics and strikes a good balance between plain text and internal links.

Of course, the site also falls into the same traps as the rest of the lot in many cases, including placing H tags around every menu item on every page (killing a chunk of the other H tag efforts) and fails to link even once to its own campaign blog. Tsk, tsk.

So, why should campaigns care? Not only are the candidates not taking advantage of an opportunity to own an issue, they're leaving themselves dangerously vulnerable to other candidates and opposing groups. With the right content, good SEO practices and a healthy dose of inbound links, a candidate's opponents could tell searchers their own version of what the candidate believes and fill results pages that should normally be friendly with unflattering spin.

Think that sounds far fetched? Hillary Clinton's campaign is reported to be working on two sites that target Barack Obama on a specific issue. Whether it will work remains to be seen, but whoever survives the primary season would be wise to watch, emulate and improve upon this approach, as well as guard against it with well-formulated SEO practices.

Search is capable of delivering the right message to the right audience in the way they want to find it: It is the ultimate direct marketing tool for campaigns. When they will choose to take advantage of it, however, is yet to be seen.

Herndon Hasty, account manager at Range Online Media, is a key member of Range's Search Engine Optimization practice. He brings to the team more than eight years of experience in online and offline marketing strategy. Prior to joining the Range team, Herndon was a successful marketing associate for Advantage Rent A Car, where he managed PPC, SEO and display media campaigns as well as the company's successful affiliate program.

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