This Federal election has seen Australian voter’s Facebook and Twitter feeds bombarded with cliché, cringe worthy and occasionally creative #ausvotes posts.
Yet behind these social media campaigns there is another far more surreptitious type of political advertising going on online.
This is the year of the Google election, and parties across the political spectrum are using unprecedented SEO marketing tactics to influence your Google searches.
LNP Owning the Adword Agenda
Our research reveals that, out of all the parties, the Liberal Party is pursuing the most aggressive Google advertising strategy.
While the Australian Labor Party and the Greens are mainly buying Google Adwords (the links labelled ‘ad’ at the top of search results) for their party names, the LNP is attempting to put an LNP advertisement at the top of searches for virtually all of the major election issues.
The LNP has bought Google ads directing voters to the LNP site when they type in a range of election keywords including “detention centre”, “carbon tax Australia”, “daycare for newborns near me” and, most scandalously, “the Australian Labor Party”.
By scheduling these ads for strategic times and places, the LNP can ensure that if you’re in a swinging electorate and type “the Australian Labor Party” into Google on your lunch break, the search results will often bring up an LNP ad before the actual ALP website appears.
There are just two problems with this seemingly ingenious strategy.
The first is that, the LNP has been surpassed – either financially or in terms of credibility – by other bidders vying for election keywords.
For instance, Amnesty International has either paid more for the keyword “detention centres” or Google has simply deemed the organisation to be a more credible advertiser than the LNP when it comes to the topic.
The second problem is that both the LNP and the Greens’ online marketers haven’t bothered to block out negative keywords they don’t want to be associated with.
If the LNP or Greens have ads that target your specific location and time, then as long as your search has the word “liberal” or “the Greens” at the start of it, you’ll get an advertisement to go to their page.
Type “the Liberal party is the spawn of Satan” and you’ll get “The Liberal Party”. Type “the Greens party smells” and you’ll get “Vote Greens on July 2”.
This is more a hilarious oversight than a serious problem, but it does show that when it comes to digital marketing, Australian political campaigning is still in very green and largely unchartered territory.
“Independent” Educational Websites Boost LNP, Spam Pages Back ALP
Another way parties vie for more online attention is by improving the “domain ranking” of their websites.
Assuming that party websites are of the same quality, the party whose website has more links pointing to it from other “strong” websites will appear higher up in voter’s search results.
Our analysis of the websites providing the most links to the LNP, ALP and Greens party websites (and thus supporting their online campaigns) reveals some very curious connections.
“They Vote For You” – an “independent” online tool for discovering how politicians vote on different issues – has 9000+ links to the LNP website, whereas it has just over 100 links to the ALP and none to the Greens.
When it comes to sketchy links, however, the ALP’s website takes the cake.
The ALP website has thousands of links from V8Central.com, a site that doesn’t appear to have any connection to politics at all.
This website, which is the ALP’s second largest non-party link provider, also has hundreds of thousands of links to online pharmacies, pornographic websites, and internet gun stores. V8Central.com has no links to the LNP or the Greens.
The ALP website also benefits from having friends in high places. Their fifth biggest non-party link provider is former British press secretary Alastair Campbell, whose blog reveals just over a thousand links to the party’s page.
The Greens Trump ALP & LNP Online
Despite link building tactics employed by the LNP, the ALP or their supporters (it’s impossible to say who created the links), the Greens’ MP website has successfully garnered much more online support than both of the major parties.
The Greens MP site has seven times more links than the main LNP site does, and five times more than the ALP’s site. These links are largely the result of an intraparty push to connect Green MP’s websites, however they also include many links from environmental groups and news websites.
This attempt to make multiple Greens pages rank in Google’s search results is a clever strategy for securing more online attention, one that both the LNP and ALP are yet to capitalise on.
Suggested Searches Tell It Like It Is
The battle of the screens is, however, still a battle for the hearts and minds of Australian voters.
And, when it comes to knowing what we’re thinking, no one does it better than Google. Ever noticed the search engine has a habit of finishing your sentences?
Google’s “search suggestions” are based on the real search activity of Australian voters, and are a unique and unprecedented tool for peering into the mind of the public.
The top search suggestions provide all parties with some painful truths about their images:
Digital marketing can do many things. It can forge associations between keywords and branding. It can make a party’s policies rise to the top of the results when voters search for information about the key issues. It can create strong online communities that can be stirred into action in the real world.
But can a Google election transform ingrained political perceptions that have been part of the Australian psyche for decades?
That remains to be seen.