Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
Al Gore has an Internet problem. No, it's not that silly remark about him having invented it. Gore's real problem is that Net surfers apparently think his site is too dull to visit.
A recent study by Direct Hit, the Massachusetts-based company that operates a "popularity" search engine, revealed that for five days in late October, almost no one searching the Web for information about Gore actually made their way to Gore's official Web site. By a large margin, Web surfers preferred going to a Gore parody site or an anti-Gore site to the real thing.
Direct Hit tracked the paths of about 1,400 Web surfers who entered the names Al Gore or Bill Bradley into search engines from Oct. 22 to Oct. 27. These were the days leading up to the "town hall" meeting between Gore and Bradley in New Hampshire. Direct Hit has partnerships with a large number of Web companies, including Microsoft Network, Lycos, InfoSpace, LookSmart, and others. The company claims that it tracks some 71 percent of all Web users over the course of a month.
The good news for Gore is that more Web surfers were looking for his name than Bradley's, by a factor of 57 percent (793 surfers) to 43 percent (597).
The bad news is that when the search results came up, there was no indication that anyone during those five days used the results to visit Gore's authorized site.
The official site "didn't even make the top 50" choices of those who searched for Gore's name, according to a Direct Hit executive. Instead, Web surfers presented with a variety of options were more likely to visit a joke or parody site. Gore's site in Spanish was among the 30 sites most often visited by those searching for his name, but Direct Hit executives say that after the top 10, there's no significant traffic worth measuring.
By contrast, Bradley's official site was the most common destination of those who entered Bradley's name into a search engine, according to Direct Hit. The Bradley campaign declined to comment on the study.
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Gore campaign, says that he has not seen the Direct Hit study. "It doesn't really surprise me," Salazar says. "The vice president is much better known than his opponent, and so it makes sense that more people would be looking for first-time information that way." Salazar says his campaign is focused on making Gore's site "as comprehensive and informative as it can be" and estimates that the site attracts several thousand unique visitors per week.
Direct Hit says that while it cannot detect the identity of individual Web users, it can track their movements with unprecedented precision. "We process the data from our partners on a daily basis," says Gary Culliss, Direct Hit's chairman and co-founder. The process is similar to that used to track banner advertising on the Web. Culliss added that the popularity rankings also take into consideration the amount of time that visitors spend on a given site.
Some of the Gore-related sites that Direct Hit said were visited most by those searching for Gore material are out of date and thinly visited. The third-most-visited Gore site, according to Direct Hit, is an Al Gore joke repository, posted on the home page of a GeoCities member and sponsored by the Ripon College Republicans. The site is actually no longer at the address that Direct Hit found to be most visited (a common problem with search engines). Now on a Tripod home page, the site itself claims to have been hit only 1,110 times since December 1998. (Nothing currently on the site is going to hurt Gore very much. Sample joke: "Topping the list of top 20 shortest books of the century--Al Gore: The Wild Years.")
Of course, the Direct Hit study doesn't mean that no one is going to the Gore site. Loyal visitors probably already know the URL or have it bookmarked in their Web browsers. And it's possible (though statistically unlikely) that large numbers of Web surfers using search engines not measured by Direct Hit were flocking to the Gore site. Most important, with the first primaries still months away, the Gore campaign hasn't advertised much to bring newcomers to the site.
It's also possible that the problem is not Gore's alone, but rather is common to front-runners. Although Direct Hit has yet to produce a similar traffic study for the Republican candidates, a search on its Web site shows that George W. Bush's official site is also not among the top 10 sites surfed by those entering Bush's name. However, upstart John McCain's official site, like Bradley's, is the most popular destination for those who've entered his name into a search engine.