Sarah Palin: how the McCain campaign blundered on the internet

In the aftermath of Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s Vice-President running mate, the coverage I came across was dominated by the possible drawbacks of her selection.

In this coverage the McCain campaign seemed to be failing very badly when it came to framing the discussion around her selection, but I didn’t read too much into it because after all the UK media across the political spectrum is very favourably disposed towards the Obama campaign and nearly everyone I know involved in US politics is on the Democrat side. Perhaps what I was hearing said more about where I get my US political news from than about the reality on the ground in the US?

However, taking a look at what is happening online, it looks like the McCain campaign has made a serious blunder. When there is a big news event, many people go to the internet for more news, and all the more so when the news involves someone or something they had not previously heard about.

And so, unsurprisingly, after the Sarah Palin news was announced, there was a huge surge in search traffic on Google with people looking for information about her. Indeed, the surge was so huge and sudden, Google Trends categorised the search as “volcanic”.

But the McCain campaign has failed to ensure that its version of the Sarah Palin story comes out well in search results. They not only haven’t been taking the opportunity to run good online ads targeted at people searching out information on her, but they haven’t managed to get decent entries into the search results either.

Getting a story to appear quickly near the top of Google’s search results can be a rather arcane art and isn’t fully under your control, but I know from experience of Parliamentary by-elections here in the UK that with careful preparation and execution, you can get the story about your candidate (or the other party’s candidate) up near the top of Google search results within 24 hours.

If you do a search on the US version of Google for Sarah Palin and Joe Biden you see two very different pictures.

First, how it should be done – the Joe Biden results. Top is Wikipedia (a reminder of the importance of this site as a source of information for people), then Biden’s official senate site, followed by a cluster of news results and then the Barack Obama 2008 campaign site, with various mainstream media following further down.

Joe Biden Search Results

In an ideal world, the Obama campaign would want their site appearing higher up the search results, but they are there well up the list on the first page and it’s hard in a short space of time to overtake a long-established site such as the official Senate site. People going there though will still see all positive information about the campaign’s candidate.

All in all, someone looking up Joe Biden via these results is very likely to come away with a more positive opinion of him.

Second, how it shouldn’t be done – the Sarah Palin results.

Sarah Palin Search Results

Again, Wikipedia and an official site (Alaskan Governor in this case) come out top of the websites. But the widespread popularity of one Palin photo-montage has helped the images to appear at the top – only one of which is a positive official photo that in turn links to an official (Governor) site. One is unflattering but links to a neutral Flickr account whilst the other links to an internet discussion forum.

Looking further down the search results, there is a mix of blogs and news sources, but no McCain campaign presence in sight. Indeed, the first partisan source is a Democrat blog, taking issue with some of her views.

If you scroll through to the third page of search results (which almost no-one does), then you do eventually find the official 2008 campaign presence

So for her, the person coming looking for information as to who this person newly on the national stage is, the result is much more likely to be them going away with negative information about the candidate, and even the more helpful content is content outside of the campaign’s control.

The extra time since the Biden pick, and the greater online enthusiasm for Obama (which translates into more website links, which help boost search engine rankings), both give the Obama team a helping hand over the McCain team when it comes to getting results high up the search rankings.

But to only appear on the third page this amount of time after breaking in the news is a dire result for the McCain campaign, and looking at the page they are promoting, you can see how they could have done a better job (such as by getting ‘sarah’ in the domain name, and working her full name more into the content rather than having the missed opportunities such as only using her first name in one headline).

Given what a battle there is now on over Sarah Palin’s reputation (inspired brilliance or eccentric mistake by John McCain?), it will be interesting to see if the McCain campaign manages to up its game.

Note: your experiences may vary if you try redoing these searches. However, I have done the best to emulate a typical US resident’s search (e.g. by using the US rather than the UK version of Google) and also the patterns I have picked up on seem to fairly reflect the overall search situation rather than any brief quirk of Google.

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