How To Make Your Campaign Website Rank on Google
If you’re running for office in 2020, you’ve likely decided you need a website. It seems like a bit of a no-brainer – every political campaign has a website and it’s an easy way to collect donations and emails, so why not? After all, websites are easy – get a big, glossy photo of yourself for the background, write up a few paragraphs of inspiring campaign promises about hope and change, and bam, you’ve got a good-looking site. Throw a donation form and email capture for your mailing list on that bad boy and there, website done; now you can move on to other things, like actually running for office.
…if any of this sounds familiar to you, do me a favor. Go grab a friend (not someone who’s involved with your campaign), ask them to Google you while you watch, and take a look at the results.
Does your website show up on the top of the first page of results, like Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s when you search “Ryan Dorsey City Council”?
…Or maybe your campaign website doesn’t display at all in 10 pages of results, as is the case when you search for “Maya Rockeymoore Cummings for Congress”?
(her page does rank first if you search “Maya for Congress” though)
If you’re more like Ms. Cummings than Councilman Dorsey, you’re losing out on a lot of the positive benefits of a campaign website. This is because searchers are heavily biased towards those results that appear on the first page – as a side effect of Google and other search engines having gotten REALLY good at finding the information we want to see, many people don’t even bother to click to the 2nd page, let alone the 4th or 5th. This 2019 study of searcher behavior bears this out. In a sample of more than 2,000 searchers, 75% stayed on the first page of results, either clicking the first or second link or else clicking on different links on the first page. This behavior changes depending on age group, with younger searchers being more likely to eschew results that aren’t highly ranked.
Okay, so you’re losing out on search traffic. No big deal, right? Your supporters are a dedicated lot, and you’re still pushing traffic to your site via your social media accounts and your donation form is still pulling down cash. That’s great, but here’s the thing – every visitor to your site is a potential supporter and, more importantly, a potential donor. While not everyone visiting your site is going to give a gift, some will – the 2019 M+R Benchmark Study, which looks at online giving to nonprofits, found that organizations were able to raise an average of $0.83 per visitor, with an average conversion rate of 17% for main donation forms. The more visitors that you get on your site, the more chances you have to earn a supporter’s vote, and the more likely you are to earn their money.
So, if you’re convinced that you want to rank higher on Google, here’s the best news you’ve had all day: it’s not going to cost you a dime. Most of the things that cause one website to rank higher than another are things that are easily within your ability to control, and they don’t require you to spend anything on ads, fancy software, or bird-mascoted online vendors.
Get a Good URL and KEEP IT!
As a candidate, you’re likely to run for office multiple times. Either you’ll win and you’ll have to run for re-election, or you’ll lose and try and run for another office later. In either case, you’re building your name recognition and awareness of your personal political brand over time – you become more recognizable, and people are better able to associate your history as a candidate and your platform with your name. Your name, in their minds, is the identifier that they link to you and all of that history and work that you’ve done in the past.
Google doesn’t give a fig about your name. In Google’s eyes, your name is just another piece of data floating around on the internet, not an identifier of who you are as a candidate or what information is associated with you. To search engines, your virtual identifier is your domain name (i.e. brandon4baltimore.com). All of the content on your website is associated with that domain name, and all of the traffic stats and ranking information they collect is linked to it. Everything they do to determine where your website pops up in a search engine is dependent on that domain.
If you change your domain name between campaigns, it’s exactly the same thing as if you’d changed how your name appears on the ballet – just like voters wouldn’t be able to link you to that history of campaigning, Google won’t be able to link your site to all of the information it’s built up. Switching domain names between campaigns causes you to lose all the hard work you’ve done in the past and forces you to restart from 0. It’s therefor critically important that you set up a single domain for your life as a political candidate and use it for EVERY campaign you run. The longer your site is up, the more people will link to it, the more people will click on it in their search engine results, and the higher you’ll rank.
Most importantly, Google treats a URL differently than it does the content on a site – if your URL is close to the searcher’s query, it’s more likely to rank high on a page. This is partially why “Maya Rockeymoore Cummings for Congress” doesn’t work, but “Maya for Congress” does – her URL matches the search terms exactly.
Write With Keywords in Mind
When people arrive on your site from Google, they’ll have done so after performing a search. Websites that appear first or second in Google results are those that closely match the search terms provided. Search engines judge this by looking at your page and what words and phrases you use in your content, so if you want your site to show up in search you need to put content on your site that . Think about searches you’ve done during previous elections to look up candidate websites – you’ve probably written something like “candidates district 14 baltimore city council” or “house of representatives candidates elijah cummings”. These types of targeted searches are common, and they’re exactly the kind of search you want to rank for. Therefor, your website needs to include these as a minimum:
- Your name
- The office you’re running for
- The district you’re running in
But that’s just the start – ideally, you’ll want to identify other specific keywords that people might be using to search for you. This could include a combination of issues + office (i.e. “city council candidates transportation policy”) or talking about important events or people in your district (“city council baltimore freddie gray”). And not just once, either, or just in isolation. You want to try and mash the words together repeatedly in different configurations, to help you cover all the different search bases. Taking a look at Councilwoman Shannon Sneed’s website, you can see this principle in action:
On December 8, 2016, Shannon Sneed was sworn in as Baltimore City Councilwoman for District 13, representing Armstead Gardens, Belair-Edison, Berea, Butchers Hill, Ellwood Park, McElderry Park, Middle East, Orangeville, and Washington Hill.About Shannon – Shannon Sneed
In 2011, Shannon ran for City Council and launched the most successful write-in grassroots campaign in Baltimore City history, a campaign described as a “David and Goliath” race. Shannon personally knocked thousands of doors and came up only 43 votes shy of winning.
In 2016, Shannon ran again to represent District 13 on the Baltimore City Council, defeated a two-time incumbent, and made the commitment to be a full-time councilperson and advocate for the people of Baltimore. As Councilwoman, Shannon has fought to pass legislation that will create jobs and protect hard working families.
In her first paragraph here, Shannon included a lot of great keywords for the individual neighborhoods in her district. This increases the likelihood that her website will appear in searches like “baltimore city council ellwood park” (for which her campaign website is the 5th result). She also has a few variations of words referring to her council position – “City Council”, “Councilwoman”, and “councilperson” are all valid search terms that someone might use to try and find her site. While there’s definitely more that she could do, her site is a great example of keyword use.
There’s a lot of websites on the internet that provide a lot of content, and most of that content isn’t good or useful. To help filter through websites that offer similar content for a search and to give users the best possible search result, Google and other search engines try to make a determination about the authority of a site – that is, they try to figure out if other people consider the site’s content useful. The number one way they do this is by looking at backlinks, which is just a fancy word for links to your website on other websites.
Google’s thinking goes like this: machines and algorithms have a hard time reading text and telling whether it’s good or bad (that’s changing, but it still holds mostly true). Because evaluating site content is hard to do with code, they need another method for determining whether a site is good or not. However, they don’t need to rely on their code if people are already looking at content and making decisions about whether it’s worthwhile; if a site is bad, untrustworthy, or not terribly relevant, nobody is going to want to share it with other people. On the other hand, if people think a site is really good or think the information on it is important, they’re going to share it with others. Thus, Google and other search engines set up their code to give better rankings to sites that more people are linking to. The more backlinks you have, the higher you’ll appear on a search engine results page.
There are some places where it’s easy to control backlinks from; namely, your social media pages. At a bare minimum, you need to make sure you’re linking to your site from any social media account or other web presence that you might be using. You can also encourage your supporters to share links to your site, either by asking them to share your donation page or by writing policy papers or sharing news on your site that other people will want to link to.
That said, the best backlinks are going to come from other sites that Google already considers highly relevant and trustworthy – that is, from sites that already have a lot of backlinks themselves. The #1 source for these is going to be your local media. Newspapers and TV stations get thousands of hits a day, and people are constantly sharing their content – if you can get them to link to your site in a news article about you, your site will start ranking much higher in search engine results.
If you have a communications staffer, they should be able to bring this up while responding to the press – they can also incentivize the local media to link to your site by publishing news about your campaign there first, rather than just pushing it out on social media or sending out an email. If you don’t have a staff member dedicated to dealing with the press, you or your campaign manager should be doing this instead. This will result in more traffic to your site in the short term right after the article or news story is published, and will help your site rank better in search engine results in the long term.
These aren’t the only things you can do to improve the ranking of your campaign website on Google, but they’re among the most important. Getting backlinks will improve the authority of your site, and Google will treat it as being more relevant for the searches that are performed. Writing keyword-driven content will help you appear in more searches, which will ensure that your website is easily discoverable by supporters. And keeping a single domain name for the entirety of your life as a political candidate will ensure that those backlinks and keyword rankings stick in Google’s memory, so that you’ll rank higher with every campaign you run.
There’s a lot more to search engine optimization and search engine marketing though, things that are going to be difficult to in a short post like this. If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, I highly recommend Moz’s online Beginner’s Guide to SEO, which goes into greater depth than we’ve covered here.
And if you’re running a campaign and need to get traffic to your website immediately, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! You can also reach out to us on Twitter @DigitalHeron. We’d be happy to take a look at your site and work with you on driving your page up in rankings to pull in those extra donor dollars.