Can You Find Your Candidate?

Can You Find Your Candidate?

By Danny Sullivan
Feb. 29, 2000

If search engines could vote in the upcoming US Presidential elections, it would be a race between Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain, rather than frontrunners Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. After all, a survey of 18 major search engines shows that you are far more likely to find the official candidate web sites of Bradley and McCain than those of Gore and Bush.

The survey, which I conducted on Feb. 28, looked to see whether direct links to candidate web sites appeared in the first page of each search engine's results when searching for them by name.

Bradley and McCain were the clear winners. A search for "bill bradley" or "john mccain" brought up direct links to their official web sites on 15 out of 18 search engines, an 83 percent success rate.

Bradley was let down by Excite, AltaVista and LookSmart. The latter two did provide indirect "RealNames" links to the Bradley site that, if counted, meant Bradley was findable on 17 out of 18 search engines.

McCain was missed by Lycos, AltaVista and LookSmart. As with Bradley, the inclusion of RealNames links to McCain's web site from AltaVista and LookSmart would have raised his total count to 17 out of 18 search engines.

Bush could only be found for "george bush" at 11 out of 18 search engines, a 61 percent success rate. HotBot, AOL Search, Lycos, Direct Hit, Northern Light, FAST and LookSmart failed to list Bush's site in their top results in response to a search for his name.

Gore came in last, with his site found for "al gore" at only 10 out of 18 search engines, a 56 percent success rate. Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, GoTo, AltaVista, FAST, Northern Light and LookSmart failed to come through for the Vice President.

(NOTE: The day after this survey was completed, GoTo updated its database, giving Gore a presence on an 11th search engine, matching Bush's count.)

The Fairest Search Engines Of Them All

Ask Jeeves, Go, Google, MSN Search, Netscape Search, Snap and iWon were non-partisan in their support of all candidates. These seven search engines were the only ones out of all the 18 surveyed to return a direct link to all candidate web sites.

MSN Search earned special praise for listing the candidate home pages at the very top of its web site results, followed very closely by outstanding performances from Snap and Ask Jeeves.

All search engines were assigned a letter score based on their performance. Overall, the entire group scored a B+. A link to the full survey, with detailed scoring explanations, can be found below.

The Candidates According To GoTo

The survey also turned up other interesting facts and oddities, in particular from GoTo, a search engine that allows sites that pay money to be listed higher in its results. None of the candidates have chosen to take advantage of this inexpensive way to increase their visibility, at least for searches involving their own names. For instance, by agreeing to pay only 3 cents per click, all the candidates could jump their listing into GoTo's top five results.

Meanwhile, operators of other sites are using GoTo to reach out to those searching for the candidates by name. In fact, because GoTo allows sites to bid against each other for placement linked to particular words, it provides a way to see which candidates are most "valuable" to web site owners.

Once again, Democrat Bill Bradley came in first. The top web site bidding on the phrase "bill bradley" on Feb. 28 agreed to pay GoTo 16 cents per click, with 13 sites in total bidding on his name.

Both Al Gore and John McCain came in second on that day, garnering top bids of 15 cents per click. But 13 sites in total believed that bidding on "al gore" was worthwhile, while only 9 sites were bidding on the term "john mccain."

Republican candidate George W. Bush was at the back of the pack, worth only 13 cents to the highest bidder for the term "george bush." However, Bush had the most sites bidding on his name, 16 in all. And if you make it "george w. bush," then his top bid tied Bradley's 16 cents.

Indeed, what a difference a word, or lack of one, can make. Here's were the top bids by last name only:

  • bush: 34 cents
  • gore: 14 cents
  • bradley: 11 cents
  • mccain: 9 cents

GoTo also allows you to see how often people searched for each candidate. The table below shows the most popular ways each candidate was sought in the month of January 2000:

Term Total
bush 4,542
al gore 3,851
john mccain 2,942
gore 2,884
bill bradley 2,764
george w. bush 2,281
george w bush 2,210
george bush 1,857
mccain 957
bradley 508
Totals From Above
Bush-related 10,890
Gore-related 6,735
McCain-related 3,899
Bradley-related 3,272

Don't draw any firm conclusions from this chart. For instance, there's no way to know how many people who searched for "george bush" were really seeking information about former President George Bush, rather than his son and current presidential candidate, George W. Bush. Additionally, these numbers are drawn from January, and when February statistics are available next month, they might show dramatic changes.

Stale Links & Defunct Sites

Searching for candidate web sites also turned up some alarming glimpses into how stale some search engine listings are. For instance, both Go and AltaVista show listings from last summer, describing the Bush site as:

"George W. Bush Presidential Exploratory Committee, Inc."

Fair to say, Bush is doing more than just exploring, at this point.

Excite also shows this listing at its top result for "george bush." However, this result doesn't link to the current web site but instead to what appears to be a now defunct web site. Anyone clicking on this link gets an error message.

It's annoying that Excite still lists this out-of-date link. But it's incredible that the Bush campaign ever released this domain name to begin with! It shows a sheer ignorance of web marketing. Not only are they missing out on traffic, but anyone smart enough to register can tap into that top listing at Excite.

Can you imagine some pornographer realizing this and registering the domain? How about Al Gore or John McCain? Don't worry, George W. -- I now own the domain, and you can have it back for the registration fee I paid. Of course, Excite will probably get that link removed real soon -- but there are still over 100 other sites across the web that are still sending people to it. Just go over to AltaVista and enter this to find them:

In contrast, Bush's rival McCain shows more sophistication. He formerly operated a site at before moving to the domain. The former site still has top listings at both Excite and HotBot, but McCain still operates it and forwards people to his new site. Of course, the redirection is done rather crudely using a meta refresh command. Server-side redirection would be a far more elegant solution and make the McCain campaign look even more like it understood the web.

Bush did get one thing right. Either there was a former web site or the candidate registered this domain name to keep others from doing so. In either case, it is this address that's listed in response to his name at Inktomi-powered search engines such as iWon and GoTo. So he gets the traffic from them, but ironically with this type of listing: - home page
Choose State AK AL AR AS AZ CA CO CT DC DE FL GA GU HI IA ID IL IN KS KY LA MA MD ME MI MN MO MS MT NC ND NE NH NJ NM NV NY OH OK OR PA PR RI SC SD TN TX UT VA VI VT WA WI WV WY George W. Bush "Honoring Our Commitment To Veterans" Friday, February..

Search Engine Un-Friendly Sites

Have the candidates made it easy for search engines, and thus potential supporters, to find them? I also surveyed their home pages in four key areas to see if they were following search engine friendly guidelines and gave each of them a letter grade based on their performance.

Title Tag

First, any candidate that wants to be found for their name should be using it in the HTML "title tag" on their home page. Bradley and McCain get it right:

John McCain for President Official Site
Bill Bradley for President

While the frontrunners fail:

Welcome to Gore 2000 - home page

At least Gore got his last name in there. As for Bush, that title might help people looking for "georgewbush" as one word, but it offers nothing to those seeking "george bush" or "george w. bush." Also notice that neither of the frontrunners makes use of a key term you'd think they'd want to be found for, "president."

Grades: Bradley and McCain get an A; Gore a C for at least using his last name, while Bush gets an F.

Meta Description Tag

Next, a description meta tag is crucial. Without one, the candidates are leaving it to the search engines to guess at how to describe their web sites. They'd never think of letting a third party write their speeches, in this way. But that's exactly what Bradley and Bush do by omitting this tag.

For instance, in lieu of a meta description tag, some search engines will use the first 200 characters or so of text that they find on the page. That why the aforementioned listing at Inktomi-powered services such as iWon show garbage like this: - home page
Choose State AK AL AR AS AZ CA CO CT DC DE FL GA GU HI IA ID IL IN KS KY LA MA MD ME MI MN MO MS MT NC ND NE NH NJ NM NV NY OH OK OR PA PR RI SC SD TN TX UT VA VI VT WA WI WV WY George W. Bush "Honoring Our Commitment To Veterans" Friday, February..

Had Bush simply made use of a meta description tag, he could have a far more attractive and enticing summary for his home page. It's somewhat similar with Bradley. Since his web site uses frames, his home page has little real text for the search engines to use in forming a description. That's why some services list him with no description while others, like Northern Light, present this view of the candidate:

Bill Bradley for President
Bill Bradley for President. Please to use the Bill Bradley site without frames. Paid for and authorized by: Bill Bradley for President 395 Pleasant Valley...

Al Gore thinks he is so hip to the web that I found this message when checking out his source code for meta tags:

Thanks for checking out our source code! I plan to use this space to post special messages to those who are helping to improve our web site -- by making our source code the best it can be. The fact that you are peeking behind the scenes at our site means you can make an important difference to this Internet effort....

Cool, dude. But how about the meta description tag? Glad to see you are using one, but what are you saying to people with it?

Welcome to Gore 2000 is the Official Gore 2000 campaign web site

I suppose it's better than Bush and Bradley leaving it to the search engines to guess, but couldn't you make me a little more excited about visiting?

McCain is more verbose, but still no more thrilling:

John McCain for President Official Site
John McCain for President Official Web site. Senator John McCain is seeking the Republican nomination for President of the United States. McCain is a candidate for the 2000 presidential primary election.

Candidates, if you want me or others to visit, perhaps have those speech writers of yours craft more enticing descriptions of your web sites, such as:

Ima Campaigner for President - Official Web Site
Learn how Pie-In-The-Sky party presidential candidate Ima Campaigner will reduce the deficit, cut taxes, increase social spending and lead the nation to new heights, with your help.

Yeah, it's not Shakespeare, but at least it communicates some important points that perhaps potential voters don't know about the candidate.

Grades: McCain gets a B, for having a decent description that at least uses his name and party. Gore gets a C, and Bradley and Bush get an F for failing to use a meta description tag.

Meta Keywords Tag

Next, let's take a peak at the meta keywords tags, to see if there are any surprises there. Bush and Bradley don't use them, so that just leaves Gore and McCain as the savvy ones. And is McCain ever savvy! Take a look at the terms he uses:

John McCain
John McCain for President
McCain for President
McCain 2000
Senator McCain
Senator John McCain
Presidential Campaign
John McCain Exploratory Committee
McCain Exploratory Committee

Great. These are all ways people might be looking for him, so having them in his tag will help his "findability" for them a little bit. But what about these:

Bush for President
George Bush for President
Bush 2000
Dole for President
Elizabeth Dole for President
Quayle 2000

Arguably, it makes sense for McCain to have terms such as "George Bush" in there, since people might be searching for things like "how does mccain compare to bush?" But the inclusion of these terms has more the feel that McCain is hoping that people searching for "George Bush For President" or "Elizabeth Dole for President" will find him instead. This is far from spam, but I wouldn't consider it squeaky clean, either.

Gore makes better use of his tag, in my opinion. In addition to his name and the expected terms:

Al Gore
Tipper Gore
Gore 2000
presidential candidate

He also names a few issues:

health care
social security
liveable communities

But wait, what's this?

MP3 files

Could Al be hoping to tap into the popularity of this term by including into his tag? You kind of get that feeling. Of course, he does have MP3 files on his site, so perhaps this is meant to help those searching for "al gore mp3 files." If so, then it's odd he doesn't feel compelled to list in the keywords tag the other file formats that he uses, such as QuickTime.

Grades: Gore gets an A for including some issues to describe his site. McCain gets a B, while Bradley and Bush get an F for failing to use a meta keywords tag.


Many major search engines have problems with frames. Using them can prevent the sites from being crawled very deeply. A deep crawl generally results in more visitors, so those candidates using frames are making a mistake in their attempts to reach out to voters via search engines. Both Bush and Gore get an A for passing the frames test by not using them; McCain gets a B for providing an alternative route for search engines to enter his site. Bradley fails entirely.

Search Engine Report Card

So how'd they do? Let's take a look:

Candidate Title Description Keywords Frames Total
McCain A B B B B+
Gore C C A A B
Bradley A F F F D
Bush F F F A D

Ironically, while Gore is doing many things right, he was the most "unfindable" on search engines. How can that be? For one, the factors I've mentioned above only have an impact on search engines that crawl the web. Additionally, there are many other factors I've not named that come into play, not the least of which is the fact that because Al Gore has been in the public eye for so long as Vice President, his official campaign site is forced to vie with a large number of other web pages all relevant to his name.

Also, it's very important to remember that the survey only looked at how well the candidate web sites could be found for each candidate's name. Success for this type of search is heavily impacted by proper usage of the title tag. Both McCain and Bradley have their full names in their title tags, and consequently, they are the most findable for their names. But good usage of the meta keywords tag, avoiding frames and using other "search engine friendly" design tips could also help the candidates be found for political issues such as "health care" and "tax reform."

As for the meta description tag, that can help a bit in relation to ranking well for particular words. However, the real value of the meta description tag is for site owners to be able to describe their sites using their own words, rather than leaving it to search engines to automatically generate summaries. Since politicians live or die politically by what they say, attention to detail in their meta description tags would be expected.

More Information

Company Names Test
See the numbers behind the study mentioned in this article.

Search Engine Submission Tips
Learn the basic things you should do to help search engines find your web sites and avoid mistakes the candidates make.

Very cool service that allows you to search for matching pages on any topic from within US presidential candidates' web sites. Enter a term like "tax reform" and get results from all sites, or narrow your search to a particular candidate's site. It also shows you the most popular terms people are using when searching through the sites via the service.

Northern Light Presidential Campaign 2000

Links to resources about the campaign, custom campaign news searches and more.

Official Bill Bradley Presidential Campaign Web Site

Official George W. Bush Presidential Campaign Web Site

Official Al Gore Presidential Campaign Web Site

Official John McCain Presidential Campaign Web Site

WWW Smackdown: Political Primaries Online
ClickZ, Feb. 25, 2000

Another look at candidate web sites, from a marketing perspective. Click through to read the earlier article

About the author

Danny Sullivan was the founder and editor of Search Engine Watch from June 1997 until November 2006.

To contact current Search Engine Watch editorial staff, please click here.