Being an incumbent has its advantages. Donors know you. The media knows you. Constituents know you. Even Google knows you. And sometimes, that’s where the trouble starts.
The search giant knows how many websites you have, how long you’ve had them, how many people link to them, and how often you appear in the news. With all that information, Google tries to figure out which search terms people use when looking for you online.
So whether you’re an incumbent or a challenger, it’s essential to get some technology magic working in your favor. One way to do it is via Search Engine Optimization, or SEO—the practice of creating, maintaining and promoting a website’s content so that Google displays your websites ahead of others for certain search terms.
To determine page ranking, or which search results to display first, Google takes into account more than 200 factors, including the content and URL of each website, as well as how “reputable” the site is—essentially how many other websites link to it using similar words or phrases.
Additionally, Google tailors its search results for individual users based on past searches. (To control for this sort of personalization, all Google searches cited in this article were done after location information, Google account information and browsing history were cleared from the browser.)
“You must brand yourself before someone else brands you,” advises Wesley Donehue, an online strategist who heads Donehue Direct. “You must ensure that someone finds the content you want them to read when they Google your name.”
When people are looking for information about a candidate on the web, the first thing they’re likely to do is type in the candidate’s name. In that instance, the candidate is going to want the first results to be something he or she has control over, like the campaign page, social media profiles or op-eds.
If voters are looking for information on a district itself, they might search for broader terms, such as the state and district number. These, according to Matthew Dybwad, partner at the political media firm Craft, are the swing voters—“the most coveted viewers for any campaign.” At that point, he says, “it’s really a race to relevancy. If you use SEO to position your website so that voters interested in relevant issues come across it first, you have a better chance of grabbing and holding their attention.”
An Incumbent Edge?
Given that they’ve been in office and the public sphere longer, incumbents typically have an advantage when it comes to SEO—something smart campaigns can work to their advantage. “Incumbents have the benefit of a long life on the Internet, with perhaps thousands of content pages, videos and pictures indexed on Google,” says online and new media consultant Patrick Hynes.
And many of those pages link back to a website maintained by incumbents (which includes the official .gov page, former and current campaign pages and an often carefully monitored Wikipedia page). Not only are more people talking about incumbents, more people are directing traffic to their official pages, which Google takes into account when determining search rankings. And that can make it more difficult for challengers.