Full disclosure: I love Bernie Sanders. I think he’s a smart, principled guy. He was also the subject of my favorite SNL skit this year; he even does his own impressions!
While Bernie Sanders hasn’t personally taught me anything about SEO, a website promoting his presidential candidacy can teach us a good lesson about how businesses can think about SEO as we move into 2016 (and beyond).
It was actually through the process of researching how I (as an independent voter) could potentially vote for Bernie that I decided to create this article. I live in Massachusetts, so I Googled “register to vote democratic primary ma” — and was surprised by the result:
A “Vote for Bernie” microsite (his main campaign site is BernieSanders.com) was outranking the state of Massachusetts’s official pages on the topic.
I wondered if this was consistent with other areas of the country. To get a cleaner look at those SERPs, I fired up the Google AdWords ad preview tool.
I find this to be a really handy tool for things like diagnosing AdWords issues for specific terms in specific areas, helping clients understand how they’re being seen by searchers in a specific area, and even (as in this case) taking a quick look at an organic search result in another area.
In this case, I wanted to see what searchers would see if they ran the same query I had from within a few different states. Here’s what I found.
This is the search result for “register to vote democratic primary ny” when searching in New York, New York:
This particular SERP actually gets more interesting as you scroll down, as well:
Ranking fifth is another Bernie Sanders microsite, this one focusing specifically on registering for the New York primary:
This is the search result for “register to vote democratic primary ca” when searching in Los Angeles, CA:
This is the search result for “register to vote democratic primary tx” from Houston, TX:
The Vote for Bernie page is outranking the official state registration pages, state Democratic party pages, and more. In New York, there’s even a page specific to that state (though time has run out for already-registered voters to switch affiliations and then vote in the Democratic primary).
The Vote for Bernie site was actually very well designed and easy to use. Here’s the experience you have going to that page if you’re trying to register to vote in the Democratic presidential primary:
You’re served an interactive map that shows you which states have which kinds of primaries, and you can sign up for updates by geography. When you click on a state to drill down, you can find more information about the process in that state:
The “Register as a democrat or undeclared” link takes users to the voter registration page for Massachusetts. Even if I weren’t specifically looking to vote for Bernie Sanders, I got the information I was after (how I can be eligible to vote in the primary) and then was directed over to the place where I can complete the process.
The second and third results when I look for “register to vote for the democratic primary ma” are generic voter registration signups. Here is the third listing:
Contrast that with the experience on the Vote for Bernie site. Here, I’m shown small text, no information about the Democratic primary (and what I need to do to vote in it) until the very bottom of the page, and a ton of information that has nothing to do with my initial query (which isn’t the fault of the state’s voter registration page, incidentally, since they didn’t build that page specifically to answer that query).
I was also curious if anyone on the Republican side of the aisle had done something similar:
No Republican attempts to rank here are in sight — and in fact, the Vote for Bernie site is ranking seventh here, too!
Based on the information on the “Vote For Bernie” site, the New York-focused “If You Want Bernie” site and a third “Feel the Bern” site that focuses on Bernie Sanders’ stances on issues, it looks like these sites weren’t built by the campaign itself, but instead were created by third-party volunteers.
Here is the footer for the Vote for Bernie site:
The site actually doesn’t even appear to be linked to anywhere on BernieSanders.com. So this is a nice site that answers a specific question created by Sanders supporters, and even if it just answered queries like the ones listed above, it would be a valuable campaign asset.
Using SEMrush, though, we can see that the site is ranking for a lot more than just specific variations of “register to vote democratic primary [State]”:
Primaries, primary voting, how to vote, vote democrat — this “Vote for Bernie” site is ranking for all kinds of interesting queries.
One thing that I thought was particularly interesting here is that the page doesn’t seem to be actively targeting these terms for SEO purposes. Here is the site’s home page title tag:
How and when to vote for Bernie Sanders (by state)
No mention of registering, primaries, or even the Democratic Party in the page’s title. Obviously, different combinations of those terms litter the page, but this generic title tag is still dominating search results for some of the most populated states in the country.
So, how is this site achieving all these rankings?
One thing that caught my eye as I browsed the site was the share count:
Digging into the numbers with Social Site Explorer, it looks like the site has been:
- shared on Facebook 96,316 times.
- liked on Facebook 233,130 times.
- tweeted 18,233 times.
- upvoted on Reddit 2,739 times.
Sharers are primarily — as you might expect — Bernie Sanders supporters. Some of the top sharers via BuzzSumo:
And the link profile for the site is pretty similar — according to Ahrefs. The site has links from 176 unique linking domains:
The site has some authoritative links from places like Politico, but a number of the other linking sites are — like the social shares — Sanders supporters (such as the Progressive Democrats Association and several sites created by volunteers, such as Feel the Bern, Pasadena for Bernie and so on).
What Can We Learn?
So what are the takeaways for marketers and SEO practitioners here? The most obvious one is probably the value of having a passionate community and of having a product (the “product” in this case being Bernie Sanders himself) that people love and are excited about.
Hopefully, you’re already trying to cultivate that type of community and create that type of product. Still, there are also people excited about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and the rest of the candidates — but none of them are showing up in the search results I’ve outlined above. So what can you do in your own business and your own SEO efforts to replicate this ranking success?
Two elections ago, the best strategy for ranking for these terms might have been to hang a bunch of very thin “How to Register to Vote in the Democratic Primary in [State Name]” pages off of your main campaign website. (And actually, that might still work reasonably well now for one of the campaigns, and it might not even be that bad a searcher experience either: short content can win sometimes, too, like well-crafted glossary pages.)
However, this single page is dominating rankings for a variety of different phrases, because Google was able to figure out what the page was about and is likely rewarding some combination of the page’s link profile, shares and positive engagement metrics.
- understood a real-world problem that a prospect (in this case, prospective voters) had: getting information about how to vote in various state primaries.
- created a simple, valuable utility that solved that problem in a more elegant, user-friendly way than other options.
- was circulated and shared with the people who were likely to share and link to the page (supporters of Bernie Sanders).
Typical campaign candidate sites (and to a large extent, Bernie Sanders’ own campaign sites) are focused on:
- their own messages and calls to action.
- self-promotional fundraising blog posts and press releases.
- information about their own events and their own issues.
Having all these things on your website is fine. The third bullet, in particular, can lead to some valuable search traffic from folks looking for information about the candidate’s stance on issues that the candidate wouldn’t want to lose to another site.
But creating this simple utility that answers this simple question has gotten a ton of valuable search rankings for the Bernie Sanders campaign that the other campaigns are missing out on.
Large sections of your own website are like this, and there are probably lots of specific, small problems that you could be solving for your prospects if you start to focus on thinking through their purchasing journey and their day-to-day activities. From there, work on identifying the areas where you can offer the right intuitive design and succinct description at the right time — just like Bernie Sanders (kind of)!