Political Search Marketing: Electronic Grass Roots

In Candidates Need SEO, Scott Willoughby examined the need for political parties and candidates to begin serious search marketing. Scott’s analysis is excellent as far as it went, but he missed the big picture. SEO and PPC for candidate sites is a tiny piece of the potential of search expertise to impact elections.

Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager for Howard Dean and current campaign manager for John Edwards, pioneered the use of the internet in presidential campaign. He was very successful raising money through small donations and using the internet to coordinate local supporters and events. Groups such as Move On have taken that example and refined the model to develop virtual communities and infrastructure that brings together supporters into physical meetings.

Candidates from both parties have borrowed heavily from these ideas. Their sites offer calls to action: donate money, volunteer, create a personalized version of the site (McCainSpace, my.barackobama.com), plan or attend an event, register for emails, download flyers and other ways to harness the energy of their base. The Edwards campaign even has a section on “Action For Bloggers”, although it is unclear what they have in mind.

Candidates and parties need to broaden their view of the internet and see beyond the fund raising channel and a way to interact with supporters, so they can unleash the power of Electronic Grass Roots. Political pundits and organizers frequently refer to the grass roots and the ground game as important factors in winning elections. They stress the ability to get people on the streets, knocking on doors and engaging their friends and family to support the candidate. The internet provides new vehicles for individuals to impact the outcome of an election.

Individual Persuasion:

Individual users, bloggers and webmasters can influence others through posts, comments and discussions. Virtual conversations take place over time and without the pressure of a face-to-face interaction. They can be viewed by thousands of people and provoke additional discussion threads. Virtual campaigning by individuals can be at least as powerful as persuading people by knocking on doors.

Social Media Action:

Political operatives have not begun to understand the collective power of a group of hundreds of thousands of people as social media activists. Reddit, Digg and other crowd sourcing platforms are among the most heavily trafficked sites in America. It only takes 50 or 100 votes on these sites to make an article “popular” and perhaps a couple of thousand votes to keep it on the homepage for a day or more. Even the “marginal” presidential candidates can muster enough support to generate exposure for their point of view or to promote articles and sites that support them into the public discussion.

Search Results As Truth:

For most people, (even the few Americans who are not search professionals :-) ) the internet has become the way to get more information about almost any topic. The top 10 or maybe 20 results are the entire consideration set for people who want to learn about an issue or the candidates.

The true power in Electronic Grass Roots is the ability to affect search results. The power of a few hundred sites to influence search results has been demonstrated over and over again. We’re not talking about Google Bombing, we are talking about SEO and reputation management strategies combined with an organizied effort that influences link acquisition and/or distribution.

An army of hundreds of thousands supporters — orchestrated by a party, a presidential candidate or an interest group with a sophisticated knowledge of search optimization — has the ability to promote virtually any websites, articles and position it near the top of the search results for a given query.

The ham handed political SEO might focus on Rudolph Giuliani in drag, kissing Donald Trump or the fact that Giuliani , a Roman Catholic, demonstrated the strength of his convictions by getting divorced twice, including an annulment after 18 years of being married to his cousin. Ranking a YouTube video or a Wikipedia entry would not require a Herculean effort. Likewise, John McCain cannot escape his defense of Bush’s War in Iraq or the fact that McCain has new bedfellows the Right Wing, such as Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

The subtle operative will recognize that this strategy is also effective when employed with a subtle hand. It is much more powerful to assassinate someone character by talking about a $400 haircut than attack John Edwards on the environment .

Pushing a highly negative article from a right wing pundit to the top will be much less effective at reinforcing peoples’ reservations about Hillary Clinton than promoting the New York Times article about Bill Clinton being Strategist in Chief. Equally important, it wouldn’t take a lot of external validation to rank an article from the Times that already contains plenty of content and keywords.

As for Barack Obama, his early opposition to the war in Iraq will have the manipulators of the Right pushing stories linking him with the NAACP in supporting immigrants’ rights.

Who needs talking points when you can get Google, Yahoo and MSN to tell your story. That’s the power of Electronic Grass Roots.

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