Rand Fishkin on SEO for Political Campaigns
How to show up and stand out online, with the SEO-demystifier himself.
A political candidate’s website is often the first place voters will go to learn what they support and if they want to vote for them. In order for voters to find you, however, your website needs to show up on search engine’s like Google.
That’s where Rand Fishkin comes in. Fishkin is the founder of Moz and knows a thing or two about search engine optimization, or SEO. Plus, he’s a progressive looking to help improve his community.
That’s why I was so excited to catch him for a quick conversation about SEO for political campaigns. The entire video is embedded below.
Since political campaigns are cyclical and operate on a short time frame, Rand shares three important things every campaign should do at the 10:54 mark:
- If you have positive coverage about your campaign, link to it.
- When you’re getting positive coverage, do your best to make sure your name and geography (like district, city, state, etc.) are in the title and headline of the piece.
- Link your social media profiles back to your website and positive press coverage.
He also shared some innovative ideas such as:
- Ask supporters for a link, which might be more valuable than a donation at times (9:30)
- Consider national press, such as op-eds (9:12) or even getting your website and candidacy listed on blogs or sites that highlight candidates around the country (16:48)
- Beware of opponents linking to negative stories about you. This can be used if your opponent has unflattering information that voters should know about. (6:00)
Enjoy this conversation with Rand. I’ll include the transcription below the video as well.
Meet Rand Fishkin, Founder of Moz and SEO Expert
Rand is a mustached, feminist co-founder of Moz, where he de-mystified search engine optimization and built tools to help others show up Google.
He is an author of Lost and Founder, whose vulnerability is only exceeded by a Justin Bieber ballad, whose insight and wit is second to none, if you’re not counting his partner Geraldine.
He is a single-payer supporting, suggested answer-hating, flower shirt wearing, sexism-fighting innovator, now on a mission to bring transparency to influencer marketing with his new company SparkToro. Please welcome the one, the only, Rand Fishkin.
Rand Fishkin’s Background from Moz to SparkToro to Progressive Politics
My background is obviously I built this company Moz. That’s now a $50+ million dollar a year software startup based here in Seattle, WA.
I left that company in February to start a new company, SparkToro, which will also be software for web marketers, but not specifically in SEO. My book is called Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World.
That book’s goal is to help demystify and shatter some of the myths around what it’s really like building a venture-backed startup.
I’ve been doing a lot of speaking, and conferences and events. I hope I am a good progressive person and support progressive policies and candidates. I am still a capitalist, but only just barely.
Me: First of all from the book, the chapter about choosing product versus a service company was truly enlightening to me. It made me feel good as someone who started a service company, who maybe always thought he wanted a product company. It was a very great chapter so I recommend if someone is picking up the book in the book shop. Check that one out.
Also, both what you (@randfish) and your partner (@everywhereist) post on Twitter are really eye-opening. I think the idea of being progressive within a company and how open you are when you represent the company, obviously you are a very well-known figure. I appreciate seeing you be transparent about that.
How Do Candidates Use SEO for Political Campaigns to Show Up on Google?
One of the big advantages generally speaking that progressive candidates will have is that the news and the facts tend to be on your side.
That can be a very strong thing so long as people are searching for are the right kinds of things and the right types of articles are showing up. Certainly, where I have seen SEO be most influential on campaigns historically is on searches for candidates’ names, which are very popular right up to an election.
So if you’re running for office, someone might Google Scott Meyer, Minnesota, and try to learn a little bit more about your candidacy and the positions that you support. And certainly, having a website that can show up first, that conveys all of that information so people don’t have to go to the result 2 and 3, 4, 5, where results are potentially more oppositional is really important.
Unfortunately, not a lot of candidates do a great job of that.
Just providing that context of, here’s what you’ll want to know about me, here’s what I do believe and do support, and writing that, crafting that content in a way that is credible and believable, that doesn’t just sound like fluff and sounds like every other political candidate. What do they actually believe. What do they actually support. I think that can go a long ways.
Should Candidates Have a Web Page For Each Key Issue?
I think that is useful if you are a candidate whose constituents or audiences is actually going to be searching for those detailed things.
If it goes beyond Scott Meyer, Minnesota and is Scott Meyer on healthcare, Scott Meyer on schools, Scott Meyer on environment, and people are actually searching for that. Yes, absolutely. I don’t think there’s any reason not to do it, unless I could put that time and energy into these other things that might boost my campaign more. It’s never a negative. The only question is: How much of a positive is it? How influential is it?
Rand on Using SEO for Political Campaigns to Share Negative Information
Unfortunately, what is highly effective and probably most used in major campaigns, is what I call using SEO to take hits at an opposing candidate.
So, if you have, a page on your website or an article that is very negative from a credible press source about an opposition candidate, getting those ranked for their names is something that has been used very effectively in the past.
Certainly in the 2016 election, we saw a ton of that around issues with national campaigns, Hilary Clinton in particular, where Googling her name plus a wide range of topics would produce all sorts of incredible false stories from seemingly credible news publications.
That was quite effective in fact in getting that content shared, and I think now, the social media platforms and Google itself have tried to take some responsibility and say, ok, how do we prevent the spread of misinformation.
You should absolutely not abuse this tactic or put falsehoods out there. I think that your job as a progressive candidate is to be better, to hold yourself to a higher standard. I certainly hold all of us to a higher standard than that.
I do think though, that if there are important, credible sources that have accurate information and that information is something that is not flattering but is something voters need to know, certainly when you’re getting interviewed, when you’re pointing to things from your website, linking to those sources, and helping them to be surfaced can be a reasonable tactic.
“Your job as a progressive candidate is to be better, to hold yourself to a higher standard. I certainly hold all of us to a higher standard than that.”
The Most Valuable Links for Political Websites (And all websites!)
Me: I know in the general SEO world, we talk a lot about local links helping people with local search. Is there some kind of correlation if I’m in a city council race or something, is it better to spend time getting links from the Boys and Girls Club or local newspaper, or is the timeframe so short that it isn’t worth the effort?
From what we’ve seen, doesn’t matter very much.
Local links are most helpful for the local and maps results, which is a different algorithm. They appear with the maps grouping in Google’s results, so unless you for some reason, I can’t imagine this comes up in a political campaign, but occasionally it might, if you see that Google Maps box and the local results from there, that’s the only time those local links really carry a ton of extra firepower.
In general, a link is going to be a link. The more credible, the more high quality, the more well-referenced the source is, the more the link is going to help you perform well in Google’s results.
I would encourage even local candidates to consider national press, and guest publications and op-eds that might be outside your area. If you have supporters who are not in your region, and they are willing to link to you, and would like to help you with that, that is absolutely on the table. I think a link is actually a great thing to ask for.
So many people will say, donations go a long ways. They do, but if you have a web publishing audience, a link also goes a long way. I would urge candidates to talk to their constituents and supporters and say, “Hey, would you be willing to say something on your website to encourage your visitors to check out what we’re doing.”
“I would encourage even local candidates to consider national press, and guest publications and op-eds that might be outside your area. If you have supporters who are not in your region, and they are willing to link to you, and would like to help you with that, that is absolutely on the table. I think a link is actually a great thing to ask for.”
Promoting Positive Campaign Press
Ask your supporters to share positive press. For example, “Here’s the three most important pieces that have been written about my candidacy or our efforts, and if you could link to any or all of these, that would go a long way to helping Google to surface them to people who are searching.”
Trying to own and control the results that come up on page one especially, is really important. That’s one of the reasons why I would really encourage candidates to do a few things.
First, to whatever degree you can influence and control this, that your name and your geography, (your district, your city, whatever it is), is included in the title and headline of the piece. So, “Scott Meyer is running for office etc. etc.” You want that naming convention so you have the maximum opportunity to show up in Google so that Google considers that a very relevant result.
Second, optimize around your name and make sure those social profiles link off to your press about you and to your website itself. I would make sure that your website likewise, links to your social profiles, and links to the press that’s been written about you.
Third, I would certainly encourage folks to consider getting press even from sources that are not in their home district. That might not reach their home audience because of the way Google operates that can still reach a lot of people who are searching for you. That can still reach a lot of people who might support you, even if they’re not in=n your particular geography.
The Best Type of Link is a Link
Me: To clarify, you mean getting a link on a web page and not a social media post because it’d be a “no follow”? Or you can maybe explain that a little bit?
Yeah, that’s generally correct.
Absolutely the best link you can get is a story on the front page of the New York Times linking to you in the first paragraph, with a direct followed link. That’s the best link in the world. Then it goes down from there.
So if the publication is smaller, or the link is less prominent, it’s still helpful but not quite as helpful.
In a social profile, the link you put on your own Twitter account, it technically has this tag that is a “no follow” tag, which tells Google, “Hey, we Twitter, did not editorially create this link, so you shouldn’t consider it a vote from us at Twitter. Instead, you should consider it to not be followed.”
However, we have seen that Google still provides some weight some times to those links.
Therefore, I would encourage you to, when you’re creating your social media profiles, still consider the links you point back to your site, to be important. Certainly lots of people will click on them, right? Because they might find your Twitter profile and they might find you on LinkedIn, they might find your Facebook page, and click that link. You want that to go to the right place and it looks to us like Google sometimes counts those.
So same thing here, if Wikipedia has written an article about an issue, and you’re mentioned in there, go ahead and go to the talk page. Put in the source for the content that Wikipedia is publishing and that source should show up. And even though Wikipedia uses no followed links, those look to us like they sometime have an impact on Google ranking. Certainly I would encourage folks to do that.
On social, on whatever platform it is, that’s another nice ask. You can say, “Hey, if you have a website, please post this here. If you don’t have a website, we’d still appreciate a tweet, a post on LinkedIn, a post on your Facebook page.”
How to Allocate Time on Web Content Versus Knocking on Doors
To be honest, it’s (blog articles) probably the last one that’s still the most influential generally speaking. So knocking on doors, meeting people in real life, setting up events, getting interviewed, reaching people where they already pay attention,
So in here in Seattle it might be the Seattle Times, and getting an endorsement from the election board, and having the Seattle Weekly write positively about you, and having the Capitol Hill blog say something nice about you.
Those types of things are going to more influential than a few tweets, a few links.
“Knocking on doors, meeting people in real life, setting up events, getting interviewed, reaching people where they already pay attention...those types of things are going to more influential than a few tweets or a few links.”
When SEO and digital marketing become really important is when you’re trying, you’re sort of already known, and you’re trying to influence broad opinion.
So someone says, “Hey this candidate did these terrible things or these wonderful things.” And someone else goes, “Well let me go look them up. I need to go search and see what’s really going on there.”
You can get some data on how much your candidacy or your positions are being searched by using a tool like, free tool like Google trends or Google’s AdWords program. Or you can pay for a tool like Moz’s Keyword Explorer, and get data in terms of, this many hundred people searched for my candidacy or my name plus my geography last month, and get some sense for how important is digital on that front.
Using Digital Marketing On a Short Time Frame
It (digital marketing for a campaign) operates like promotion in a number of other fields.
For example, if you and I started a company to make games for mobile phones, ranking very well for a particular kind of game we’re making or our game’s name, not that helpful. But, if we can get listed in the places that show top Android games or the best new Android games of August 2018, that can really move the needle for us.
The same is true in elections.
If you can be listed in the most exciting candidates or the best candidates to vote for, or if you can get on those types of lists from the publications that put that content out on a regular basis, every October or November, whenever your local elections are happening, that can be very meaningful.
Me: At a national level, there are obviously a lot of political blogs, a lot of people writing about politics, who might not know who you are, and just getting them to know who you are might then help you get some links and visibility.
How Soon Should a Candidate Build Their Website and Start Marketing?
Tactically speaking,, from an SEO perspective and lots of other awareness reasons, the earlier you can start, the better. So certainly if you start saying “I’m running in 2020” and start getting press and interviews and coverage and links and attention and people who are signing up to your email list, the longer the cycle you have, the more helpful it is in terms of building your digital audience.
Granted, they will get more passionate over time to the degree that it’s going to be a slow burn for a while, and then come summer 2020 it will be super hot.
SparkToro and Influencer Marketing
I would also say that in terms of the new space I’m going into, so SparkToro, we have generally shied away from the term influencer marketing because I think five years ago that term meant all of the sources of influence that affected an audience.
Today influencer marketing really just means half-naked people on Instagram. That is not what we are doing. We’re not helping with that. So if you’re trying to find the social media influencer who is going to post a picture on Instagram and you pay them $500 to pose with your product, in their swim suit, that’s not us.
However, what we are trying to do with SparkToro is build up a database of profiles. We throw away the personally identifiable information but have them and say, “Hey, I want to reach chefs in the Midwest, what publications should I get in touch with that chefs in the Midwest actually read.” We might say, it turns out they all go to this event, they all listen to this podcast, or these seven podcasts. They subscribe to these four YouTube channels, and they read these 22 blogs and those kinds of things.
So that’s what we’re trying to surface with SparkToro. We’re probably 6-9 months away from having a product.
Me: I think that’s fascinating to think about for candidates, even if you do it manually. I ran for city council and it was important to get my sign in the right people’s yards because five of their neighbors listen to them, so it’s nothing new.
And I always like to remind people of that, it’s nothing new showing up on Google, it’s getting people to pay attention to what you care about and hopefully the platform you stand for.
Additional Resources For Political Candidates
It’s interesting Scott, when you brought this topic to me, I thought, this is something I’m passionate about, this is something I want to help with.
So I actually reached out to my network and asked them for their best tips and advice. I’m going to be assembling those into a blog post that I hope to publish in the next few weeks. That’ll be coming soon at some point on the SparkToro blog.
In terms of other places that I would urge you to check out. If you’re interested particularly in the SEO, I think both Moz and Search Engine Land do a good job of covering that space.
The challenge is that not everything, not even a lot, is geared towards politics which is a very cyclical and short-term driven sort of field. I think that can be a challenging thing.
So there are a few good presentations on Slideshare, about political SEO, that I checked out.
Me: We will get those links and share those. I always remind people, websites are really where people go, so you have to show up and make sure it links to the right places and that it gets emails and all the basics.
Yes, the last thing in the world you want to do is try and get Facebook likes and rely on that because Facebook just doesn’t have the reach anymore. When you post on there, one in a 1,000 of your fans are seeing that versus, if you send an email to a mailing list and click through, so that’s far more valuable than a Facebook like.
Me: I really appreciate the time Rand. Anyone listening, definitely check out Lost and Founder. You might not think of yourself as a founder if you’re running a campaign, but I think of the challenges that you mentioned with employees and staff and budgeting is exactly what these candidates are probably going through so that will be a warm hug on a cold Seattle day.
It’s been such a pleasure. Thanks for being here Rand. We’ll see you on the inter webs.
Header Photo: The Inbounder