In the world of politics, reputation management is crucial. In order to appeal to as many voters as possible, politicians must protect their reputation, which means minimizing the availability of information that casts them in a negative light while constantly promoting themselves and their political agendas. Decades ago, long before voters could utilize the web as a tool to gather political information, reputation management was much easier; far less negative information was available to the general public.
These days, however, with a seemingly endless supply of easy-to-access information, politicians can only hope that voters are unaware of the mistakes scattered throughout their personal and professional lives. With even just an inkling of a past indiscretion, internet-savvy voters are able to dig up a wealth of information detrimental to a politician’s career. Now, following the release of Google Instant, it is going to be even harder for politicians to conceal blemishes on their records.
Thanks to Google Instant, politicians are finding that many of their questionable actions are becoming increasingly difficult to hide from the public. By suggesting popular search strings relevant to information entered by users, Google Instant is leading many voters to information that will, undoubtedly, influence where their votes go.
When someone enters a politician’s name, Google Instant displays possible additions to the search string based on popular, relevant queries formulated in part by other Google users. If a particularly damaging piece of information concerning a politician is deemed relevant, the term will be suggested. In this way, Google Instant is making its users aware of mistakes scattered throughout politicians’ careers, and giving them the ability to investigate further.
Nearly one month after the release of Google Instant, some politicians are already feeling the effects… and not in a good way. Indeed, because of one particularly effective Google Instant campaign being waged by Harvard-educated lawyer and SEO guru Seth Woodard Persily, the Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, may very well be the first politician to lose an election in part because of a search-string suggestion. The story has been making national news after being highlighted in an article by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported that it “may be the first campaign of its kind, one that opens an entire new field of worry for political candidates.”
The Google Instant campaign began during the heated Republican primary contest for Georgia Governor last August. During the campaign, Congressman Nathan Deal ran a television ad that attacked YouthPride, an Atlanta charity that works to prevent suicide among gay and lesbian youth, by claiming the organization “promotes homosexuality among teenagers as young as 13.” When the ads were critized as being a scare tactic, Deal refused to back down, and went on to call for a ban on gay and lesbian couples adopting children. Deal’s stance helped him win the Republican primary, but it also galvanized Georgia’s gay and lesbian community against him.
After viewing the attack ads against YouthPride, Mr. Persily, who sits on YouthPride’s Board of Directors and is a gay father of two, decided to attack back. Persily, who is the Vice President of a successful internet-marketing firm in Atlanta, quickly recruited volunteers throughout the state to help, and then began utilizing his knowledge of search-engine optimization (SEO) to bring attention to Deal’s past indiscretions, particularly those that bring the Republican nominee’s ethics into question. More specifically, utilizing an SEO strategy that the company made public on their website, he influenced Google Instant results to ensure that users who type “Nathan Deal” into Google’s search bar receive “Nathan Deal Ethics” as a search-string suggestion.
Indeed, type the Georgia candidate’s name, Nathan Deal, into Google and you’ll see “Nathan Deal ethics” as the very next suggestion. Moreover, “Nathan Deal ethics” shows up above other suggestions, including Nathan Deal’s biography, his voting record in Congress, and other seemingly pertinent information. Users who choose the ethics option (and if you have Instant turned on even without pressing enter) are presented with several pages of information, many of them micro-sites such as http://www.nathandealethics.com that were created by Persily and his team of volunteers to call attention to the gubernatorial candidate’s ethics, including information on a number of scandals in which the Congressman was allegedly involved.
Going one step further, even just typing “Nathan D” into Google will get you “Nathan Deal ethics” as a top-four suggestion, the only Instant suggest term that is not just a name. With instant turned off, the list of suggestions is longer, but their ranking is the same. Persily insists that all of his efforts are white-hat, and that he is simply directing users towards pertinent information published by reliable sources such as the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the U.S. House of Representatives’ Office of Congressional Ethics.
Indeed, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) led an investigation and found that as a Georgia Congressman Nathan Deal allegedly used his political influence to ensure that nearly $300,000-a-year in funding from a Georgia state program went to benefit an auto-salvage company in which he is a part owner.
According to Brian Robinson, spokesman for the Deal campaign, the Gubernatorial hopeful understands the importance of reputation management and is adopting counter-measures, including “saturating the Internet with positive articles about the Republican nominee for governor.” Nevertheless, as a result of Google Instant and Persily’s efforts, more and more voters in Georgia are becoming aware of serious ethical concerns that Deal is trying desperately to hide. In November 2010 the gubernatorial election will be held, and Nathan Deal’s scandals may, with the help of Google Instant, cost him the title of Governor.