09 Sep How Google Sees the 2020 Democratic Candidates
Google knows everything, right? What about policy and platform similarities between 2020 Democratic candidates for president? Their mission has always been to organize the world’s information and make it accessible to anyone, from anywhere, at any time. With advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, they can also show how different things are related.
In 2012, they shifted to the Knowledge Graph, signaling a move from largely an index of web pages linking to each other to a repository of data entities relating to each other. A web page can be an entity, an organization or a political candidate.
What does Google know about the candidates?
Previously, we ranked the Democratic presidential primary candidate websites and their engagement on Twitter. Now we’ll look at how Google looks at the relationships between the candidates. Using website content as a proxy for their policy positions, we did a comprehensive analysis of organic keywords for the 10 candidates participating in the next debate.
Google uses keywords (in addition to about 200 other ranking signals) to determine what a web page represents. Google’s own guidance is to “provide high-quality content on your pages, especially your homepage.” If two pages have similar, high-quality content, then the likelihood of them representing the same theme and ranking similarly in search results are high.
Applying these assumptions to our analysis, we first looked at the total volume of similar keywords for all 10 candidate websites. The result of the comparison is interesting and proves some of the candidate similarities mentioned in the media. Try Googling “warren sanders same” and see what shows up.
Two leading candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the most closely linked as having similar views. These similarities are visually represented in the table below. Dissimilarities are also evident, like Sanders and Warren with the other front-runner Joe Biden.
The table below compares the total organic keyword overlap of each of the 10 candidates against their primary opponents. The larger the number and darker the shade of green, the more similar the two candidates are, at least according to Google’s keyword rankings.
In the eyes of Google, you are most likely to see Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’ websites showing up in the same search results. And, far more often than any other combination of two candidates.
The next biggest overlap is Senator Amy Klobuchar with both Sanders and Warren. A strong overlap here is slightly surprising if you look at online progressive rankings like ProgressivePunch or GovTrack.us. Sanders and Warren are relatively close in those rankings, whereas Klobuchar is more moderate and center left.
Aggregate keyword similarity across candidate websites is interesting, but nothing very provocative or informative here. It’s a good heat map to prove similarities. It also takes into consideration all keywords, so that means things like campaign hats, bumper stickers and t-shirts are included. Not surprisingly, that’s the overwhelming number of Google searches. I suppose people are more interested in campaign merchandise than policy positions?
Where it gets more interesting is to see the intersection of each candidate with the others when it comes to policy-related search queries.
Where are the candidates similar?
Filtering out the campaign hat and bumper sticker search noise, we uncovered some policy overlaps – some surprising, some not so much. Each candidate’s Google keyword rankings were compared and the highest rated policy-related keyword was identified as their keyword intersection.
For the table below, a light green box means the candidate listed in the row had that issue in their top 30 keyword search rankings, but not the candidate in the column (e.g., “rural america” for Buttigieg but not Biden).
A dark green box means that both candidates had the keyword ranking in the top 30, signaling a stronger policy intersection (e.g., Booker and Harris for “immigration action plan”).
Let’s break down the dark green boxes, the more pronounced policy intersections.
- Rural America – Buttigieg and Sanders: The intersection that jumps out the most is “rural america” for Mayor Pete and Senator Sanders. Buttigieg is the mayor of a city, South Bend, and Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, plus was mayor of Burlington. Despite their urban connections, Buttigieg raises his “commitment to America’s heartland” including rural health care. Sanders focuses his “revitalizing rural america” plan on change in federal agricultural policies.
- Immigration Action Plan – Booker and Harris: Both candidates have taken positions on changing the way we handle immigration. Booker revealed a plan to virtually eliminate immigrant detention and Harris has stressed DACA and pathways to citizenship via executive action.
- Petition to Stop Kavanaugh – Harris and Sanders: It’s clear what this intersection represents. Both Sanders and Harris released official statements regarding their votes on his nomination to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
- Increase Teacher Pay – Harris and Yang: Senator Harris has a plan to raise teacher salaries by an average of $13,500, which would cost roughly $315 billion over a decade. The plan would be covered 10% by the federal government, then the states would support increased teacher pay via a federal match.
- College for All – Sanders and Yang: Bernie Sanders has an ambitious plan to provide college, university and trade school education to all students, free of charge. Not only that, he proposes canceling all existing student debt, which stands at $1.6 trillion, two-thirds of which is held by women. Yang agrees on needing to control the ballooning costs of higher education and suggests reducing the number of administrators and preventing publicly funded universities from increasing their costs more than the rate of wage growth. Slightly bizarre is his “Harvard Creates a New University in Ohio Tax” which requires universities with endowments over $30 billion (as of today, only Harvard) to contribute 1% each year to the founding and operations of a new university in Ohio.
Scan through the table and compare the intersection of policy keywords. Some interesting anomalies and stories are there.
Note the lack of intersection for a number of candidates, mostly Julian Castro. We won’t see a lot of keyword intersections with just under 200 pages of content on your website.
Joe Biden intersects with Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang, but each time his website ranks higher for the policy keyword than his opponent.
Bernie Sanders intersects with the most candidates (Buttigieg, Booker, Harris, Warren and Yang), four times where the policy is in the top 30 results for both candidates.
Despite a couple policy intersections with Biden on climate and Yang on immigration, Beto O’Rourke doesn’t have any of his issue keywords ranking in the top 30 search results.
Despite the policy similarities between Senators Sanders and Warren, her keyword intersections with other candidates were quite different. The common policy regarding student debt was the only keyword that ranked in the top 30 for Warren.
Most Competitive Organic Keywords
If you’re curious about the non-policy keywords over which the websites are competing, check out the table below. Out of the hundreds and sometimes thousands of keywords they rank for, many, if not most, are not substantive. They’re the aforementioned campaign hats and bumper stickers.
Tom Cochran is partner and chief growth officer for 720 Strategies. He is a former Obama administration appointee, having served both in the White House and Department of State between 2011 and 2016. He also serves as a digital transformation keynote speaker, writer and adjunct professor at American University.