Ever since the political world discovered the Internet back in 1996, each passing year has brought more technological sophistication and a wider online audience to campaigns. Campaign 2005 was no different, although the local and state candidates and parties lag far behind what's happening on the national level.
So how did candidates and parties make use of the net? It depended on the candidate or the organization. Most had websites, especially those in larger towns and cities. Some candidates had individual websites, while others, to save money, were part of a party or slate site.
Designs ranged from professional to disturbing, but they all had one thing in common:
No one could find them using Google.
Go and search the web for "Enfield Democrats" and see if this site comes up. It's #35, after a mess of things about Enfield, England. Actually, up until very, very recently, it was much farther down. The Republican site is, if anything, even harder to find. Enfield is a large town, and both parties marketed their sites reasonably well, and it was still difficult to find them.
I watched my own site stats very carefully on Monday and Tuesday, and I could see some of the searches people were using on Google, Yahoo and other search engines. I ran some of those searches myself, and if these people were frustrated that they couldn't find what they were looking for, I couldn't blame them. People want to find good information about candidates, and in general newspapers have abandoned the field in that area.
So, naturally, people are starting to turn to the web. This is a golden opportunity for candidates to get their message out. Most failed to do so.
Candidate sites almost never turned up on the first four or five pages of a Google search. Most users won't go past the first one, let alone wade all the way down to #76. Admittedly, it's hard to bump yourself up in the ratings, but candidates do need to learn to better market their sites, and state parties have to learn to help. Links from established sites will help search engines find new ones.
The state parties have yet to learn how to do this. Cases in point: the Republican and Democratic state committee websites. There are no links to candidate sites, although the Democrats at least have links to DTC sites (many of which were rarely updated or didn't link to candidate sites). The Republicans have an unhelpful directory feature instead of links. They can both do a lot better.
In general candidates put sites up on the web (because they feel they ought to) and then just sort of let them sit there. A few candidates experimented with blogs, but didn't update or used them just as a rolling events calendar. The information contained on candidate sites tended to be minimal, and there was little to no interactivity. There was little to draw users back for a second visit.
So while candidates had a presence on the web, most web users didn't know about it and candidates aren't taking advantage of it. As national and state political sites evolve and become more interesting, interactive and open, their ideas will start filtering down to this level. This year helped to solidify a local political beachhead on the web. It's now up to future candidates to consolidate their gains and break new ground.