Searching for the Right Candidate

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
June 6 2000 3:00 AM

Searching for the Right Candidate

Making political sites easy to find is a challenge for campaigns and for the search engines that try to index their pages. 

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Campaign staffs are long accustomed to worrying about getting their candidate on the evening news. Now they face a new concern: What kind of play is the candidate getting on Internet search engines and other online Web directories?

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For many candidates, the answer to that question is not good. And as the Web sprawls out beyond 1 billion pages, with no friendly librarian to keep track of them all, the search-engine problem is more than an academic issue for campaigns.

If surfers looking for political information don't already know or cannot correctly guess a candidate, party, or interest group's exact Web address, chances are they will visit a search engine. And chances are just as good that these site-seekers will wind up lost in a thicket of online weirdness.

For instance, type the words "Hillary Clinton" into the popular Yahoo! directory, which combines searches with a vast database of links that are submitted, reviewed, and ranked by actual human beings. Once a user gets beyond the wire stories and Yahoo! directory categories, one of the first direct Web links takes you to the Hillary Clinton Forum, an unofficial Hillary fan site. Other top links include a site proclaiming Clinton the "Sexiest Woman Alive" and another hawking "Hillary Clinton's Pen Pal: A Guide to Life and Lingo in Federal Prison"—a book by "an ex-federal prisoner and former professor" who wants to be the first lady's "helpful pal preparing her for life in the penitentiary."

Nowhere to be found is Clinton's official New York Senate campaign site. There is a Yahoo! category page for Clinton's campaign, which does include a prominent link to the first lady's site, but that still puts her URL two links away from the initial Yahoo! search result. Type in "Rick Lazio," on the other hand, and the first hits that Yahoo! returns include the Republican New York Senate hopeful's official congressional page and his new campaign site.

The Yahoo! results illustrate two phenomena: Search-engine play varies wildly from candidate to candidate and, at least as far as politics on the Web is concerned, it is better to be unknown than to be a celebrity. The more someone has been in the news and the subject of rumor and gossip, as Hillary Clinton has been for more than eight years, the more junk is likely to accumulate in search engines that rank their results by the number of times a search term appears on a given page.

Many search engines also rank results based on hidden keywords (called "meta tags") slipped into a page's underlying HTML code. Others rely on complex computer algorithms or staff to read submissions and rank sites.

But even if a candidate such as Clinton registers her official site taking into account all of these methods, the sheer volume of competing pages about that candidate can push his or her official page down the list.

"You can't really guarantee anything if you are in that broad of a category," said Kevin Nitsche, an Internet specialist who helped Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign get good search-engine play during the Republican presidential primaries. "It's just like if someone types in 'sex' or 'porn.' Because there is so much of that out there, you can't guarantee that your site is going to be up at the top."

Nitsche and the McCain campaign helped ensure the candidate would show up high in search-engine queries by registering not just the site's official address but also a list of other words that searchers might enter while seeking McCain—or, as it turns out, George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole. (Click here for the list of words the McCain campaign hoped would point surfers in its direction.)