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TECHNOLOGY

Candidates Find Incumbent Advantage Extends To Web

Questions About Google's Dominance Of The Search Market May Also Apply To The Company's Role In Elections

Thirteen years in the House and a stint as majority leader have furnished Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., with useful GOP and K Street support for his Senate bid. But Blunt's long resume also means a boost from another source: Google.

Not from the search giant's PAC, which has favored congressional Democrats this cycle and has not contributed to Blunt's campaign. Rather, Google and other search engines provide Blunt a leg up in its search listings.

 

When users search for neutral terms related to the race, such as "Missouri senate campaign," Blunt's fundraising page consistently ranks higher than that of his lesser-known Democratic opponent, Robin Carnahan, who finds herself on the second page of results. Sixty-eight percent of searchers review results only on the first page, according to an iProspect study. This may be particularly true for casual voters who go online just to figure out who is running.

The high search ranking for Blunt's campaign page has nothing to do with politically-motivated favoritism, but it may be another perk of Blunt's been-around status. The example shows how incumbency advantages (or in Blunt's case, holding a different office) can carry over into the increasingly important world of online strategy.

It also raises questions about Google's potential role as a kingmaker in elections as the company falls under scrutiny for its power to influence outcomes in the marketplace.

 

"As the search space has become concentrated in this particular search company, more Web sites depend on the decisions of a particular search engine operator," said Andrew Odlyzko, a search expert and professor at the University of Minnesota. "That includes in the political space."

Google acknowledges that its search methodology may provide certain competitors with advantages. "We understand how important rankings can be to Web sites... because a higher ranking typically drives higher volumes of traffic," wrote Google senior competition counsel Julia Holtz last week on the company's public policy blog.

Google ranks its search results using algorithms that aspire to call up the most useful pages. It boosts pages that seem more important and reliable, considering such variables as how much traffic a page receives and how frequently other sites have linked to it. "Google's intention is to show what's most relevant," said Galen Panger, a spokesman on Google's elections and advocacy team. "The point is to provide the most valuable results."

Online politicking is often associated with scrappy challengers, but candidates who have previously run for office may have an advantage in searches of some neutral words. Their pages have been floating around the Web longer, allowing them to accumulate more links and sometimes receive more traffic. "It's possible there are some incumbency advantages for some searches," Panger acknowledges.

 

Despite these incumbency advantages in neutral searches, there are some variables that may give challengers an edge in pulling users to their sites. "In many races, if you compare the number of searches for a challenger versus an incumbent, the challenger often has a higher search volume," Panger said. "Challengers also tend to be more active in reaching out to the online community, so that's another advantage they have."

Also, candidates are not helpless before Google's algorithmic might. Campaign web strategists make a concerted effort to ensure their campaign pages do not get lost in the sea of search results, and Google provides site owners with tips for becoming more search-friendly through its webmaster hub. Creating accurate page titles, using complete words in a site's URL, and providing a site map can help boost a site's rankings. "These are easy things a site owner can do," Panger said.

Does page ranking matter to a candidacy? Web strategists say yes. High page ranks are so sought-after that upping a site's ranking -- a practice called "search engine optimization" -- has spawned an entire industry of consultants who promise to boost their clients' Google results. When this practice is used to game Google's algorithms, it is sometimes viewed as a dark art that degrades the search engine's utility. Imagine, say, if Blunt blanketed his homepage with the words "Megan Fox," one of Google's most popular queries. He might get more hits, but Fox enthusiasts would be unhappy when Google ushered them to the site of the 60-year old congressman.

Google's overwhelming dominance of the search market has brought its power to determine marketplace outcomes under new scrutiny this year. Tech company Foundem and other so-called "search neutrality" advocates allege that the search engine is gaining an unfair advantage by favoring its own products in searches. The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog wrote the Justice Department last week urging it to investigate the issue, while the European Commission is already checking out complaints from Foundem and others.

These laments echo calls from major Internet service providers, including AT&T and Verizon, who want to see search engines regulated. They say prospective rules aimed at preventing phone and cable companies from toying with Internet traffic should extend to include new regulations on Google. AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi has argued that "if any entity on the Internet today has the ability to chill voices with which it disagrees, that entity is [Google]," according to PostTech.

The search giant answers that it is transparent about its rankings and that it has no interest in anything but searcher satisfaction. "We are confident that our business operates in the interests of users and partners," Google's Holtz wrote on the blog.

But Odlyzko predicts that concerns will only grow if Google maintains its dominance of the search market. If its political influence becomes an issue, the company could consider options that would give candidates equal advantages for grabbing user attention, such as listing trustworthy political data in a separate bar at the top of the results page (as it does for market data). Panger said the company "wants to be a positive participant in elections" and is not ruling out such options. He pointed to Google's tools for helping voters find their polling places at election time, along with YouTube's hubs for information about elected officials.

"We haven't done anything where you can search for 'Missouri election' and get all the various candidates, but I think it's a great idea," Panger said. The company has often been quick to adapt its services to user concerns, as it did in response to privacy questions about its social networking tool known as Buzz. Whether the company will adapt its services in response to complaints about competitiveness will be a major question going forward.

After all, Odlyzko said, it will not suffice for Google to tell searchers and Web site owners who do not like its ranking methodology that they can simply go elsewhere.

"Telling someone 'you can build your own search engine,' is not realistic," he said. "That's like telling someone who doesn't like their health care to 'build your own hospital' and 'hire your own doctors.'"

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