A Candidate's Guide to Search Engines
Let’s say you’re running for city council, and you’ve just put the finishing touches on your campaign web site. You’ve registered your domain name, and you’re primed for the inevitable flood of volunteer signups and campaign contributions. You click the "publish" button, sit back, and wait for the hits to start rolling in.
You check your watch. The hits aren’t rolling in. It’s been hours, and you’re not showing up in search results. What’s going on?
Search engines are enormously complicated, somewhat mysterious, and perpetually changing. None of the major search engines publicize the details of their search algorithms, and all of them make changes and refinements to those algorithms on a fairly regular basis. This is good in that it keeps ne’er-do-wells from exploiting the system, but can prove confusing when trying to get your own site to show up in results. Fortunately, there are a few proven methods for getting your new political web site to appear on Google, Bing, and Yahoo!.
It Takes Time
First and foremost, understand that it takes time to get indexed - anywhere from days to weeks. Search engines use programs known as "spiders," "crawlers," or "bots" to scour the web for the content that goes into search results, and it can take some time for these bots to find their way to your site.
While Google and Bing should find your published website without intervention, you can try to help the process along by submitting your site directly through Google webmaster tools, and Bing webmaster tools (this should work for both Bing and Yahoo, which currently uses Bing’s search engine). Submitting your site manually can help expedite the indexing process, but it’s not a panacea. Note the warning on Google’s submission page:
"We don’t add all submitted URLs to our index, and we can’t make predictions or guarantees about when or if submitted URLs will appear in our index."
Since time is a factor in getting indexed, it’s obviously important to get your campaign site up and running as early as possible. That’s not the only reason, though - many search engines include longevity as a ranking factor, meaning that the longer your site is up, the more credibility it has, and by extension, the more likely it is to show up in search results.
Search engines discover new websites primarily through link discovery - following links from site to site. When other sites link to yours, it increases the likelihood that you’ll be indexed. The profile and relevance of the links does count, though. A link from your niece’s origami blog will have significantly less impact than one from CNN.com.
Unfortunately, chances are that CNN won’t write a story about your run if they can’t find your website. You’re going to need to get your name out there, and luckily, there are plenty of folks willing to link to political candidates’ campaign sites. Newspapers, relevant blogs, election sites, and even other (friendly) candidates may be more than happy to give you a link. All you need to do is ask.
Since by necessity you rely on search engines and other websites to help get you noticed, we’ve mostly been focusing on things that are to a large degree out of your control. You can ask everyone to link to you, but you’ll have a much easier time by creating a site that other people want to link to.
What this means, quite simply, is that the content on your site should have value and relevance to your site visitors (read: prospective voters). This goes without saying - a campaign website without content is basically just a virtual lawn sign. It reminds people of your name, but tells them nothing about you. Your site is where you connect your name to your ideas.
In a nutshell:
- Give yourself plenty of time.
- Make your site a valuable resource, and people will link to it. Asking for links will help, too.
- Keep it interesting, relevant, and timely for the sake of your visitors, and you’ll have the added benefit of helping search engines notice you.