The UK election and SEO games: Search, scandal, and big promises
The UK goes to the polls this week and the governing Conservatives have already made headlines for their online activities. Luke Richards dives into the political battleground that is the Google SERPs – and provides his analysis of the manifesto promises relevant to the digital business community.
As the UK heads towards its third general election in four years, the two main parties – Conservatives and Labour – both seem to agree that investment in digital technologies is crucial to tackling challenges within the economy, the environment, and the country’s working relationship with the rest of the world after Brexit.
Both parties have also invested a significant amount of their marketing budgets in their digital campaigns.
These past few weeks we’ve seen examples of good and downright poor practice when it comes to search engine marketing. We’ve seen varying success in search visibility, online sentiment, and traffic. And the content of the manifestos themselves – for a digital/tech business audience – makes for fascinating reading in light of the challenges I’ve mentioned above.
Here is my analysis.
Search visibility of the manifestos
We are massively lucky in the UK with the amount of transparency and information at our fingertips as we decide who to vote for in elections.
There are bad actors, as we will discover later, but sites such as They Work For You, Vote For Policies, and The Political Compass all help to separate the quality content from the noise. And with just a couple of clicks, we can have immediate access to any manifesto.
Even before we’ve clicked through to the Conservatives’ manifesto landing page, we already know what the party’s central plan is – should they command a majority in the next parliament: “to get Brexit done.”
The “get Brexit done” mantra is one that is repeated countless times in the manifesto itself. I’d expected that the Conservative SEO team would be looking to get some visibility for this as a keyphrase. But a quick search for this finds the domain languishing only on page two of Google’s SERPs amid much negative press critical of this populist sloganeering.
Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats’ (a right-wing pro-Europe party) are targeting this key phrase as part of their paid search campaign – with their sponsored ads appear in position zero of the SERPs.
Beyond this, there isn’t much more to the search result save for the “vote conservative” call-to-action in the title and the URL. It’s notable for its brevity, leaving much of the rest of the SERPs open to be filled by positive and negative press, including two articles from The Daily Telegraph (a newspaper which previously employed Conservative leader Boris Johnson) and a well-ranked piece by Prospect magazine describing the party as a “threat to human rights”.
At first glance, the Labour party has adhered much better to onsite SEO best practice.
Their site links are well-served by Google. They command much of the SERP real estate and appear very useful to the user.
The choice for site links is a little surprising. The link to the “Accessible Manifesto” is a nice touch – showing consideration to web users who have difficulty reading the text. But the other links don’t really relate directly to the key policy points in the document itself such as their Green Industrial Revolution and National Education Service.
The closest the Labour search result has to a call-to-action is – the “be part of our movement – with your email address…” element, but it isn’t massively compelling. Another misstep is that the PDF for Labour’s 2015 manifesto is still live and ranking well in position four of SERPs, which could quite easily confuse and frustrate users.
Sentiment elsewhere in the SERPs is more nuanced than what we see for the Conservatives. However, again, right-wing newspaper The Daily Telegraph takes position two and three of the SERPs – and although not immediately negative – one can imagine these articles aren’t massively objective after the user is moved to click through (although this content is behind a paywall).
Search traffic comparison
In the battle for search traffic, the Labour manifesto is vastly outperforming the Conservatives.
At its peak – shortly after publication at the end of November – the Labour manifesto got three times as much traffic as the Conservative manifesto did when it performed best on November 24th.
The related queries according to Google Trends are illuminating. “Labour manifesto waspi” is clearly the biggest policy point in search terms online. Another breakout keyphrase is “fake labour manifesto” highlighting some of the underhand tactics employed by the Conservatives (as we’ll discuss below).
For the Conservatives, related queries are dominated by long-tail keyphrases that users are typing in to differentiate the new UK Conservative manifesto – “conservative manifesto 2019 UK” from the Canadian equivalent “conservative manifesto 2019 Canada”. Sadly for Prime Minister Johnson, there’s no appearance of “get Brexit done”. Do Google’s users actually care about this policy? Perhaps not.
Banned Google ads and misleading websites
The appearance of the breakout search term “fake labour manifesto” as highlighted at Google Trends points to some of the more bizarre aspects of this general election. The Conservatives have appeared to dabble in black hat tactics, and outright fakery, to try and confuse voters and diffuse the positive results Labour is clearly getting online.
To coincide with the launch of Labour’s manifesto, the Conservative party set up a fake website at labourmanifesto.co.uk and launched a paid search campaign to capture clicks from the SERPs.
Google promptly banned eight of the Conservatives’ search ads
Google has promptly banned eight of the Conservatives’ search ads. The fake website is still live, but only really visible, currently, when searching for “fake labour manifesto” – and even then it appears below several news sources highlighting the Conservatives unethical behavior.
Google’s ad policy states:
“We value honesty and fairness, so we don’t allow the promotion of products or services that are designed to enable dishonest behaviour.”
I’d be very surprised if the Conservatives’ digital marketing team don’t know this.
But for the sake of democracy, it’s good to see the search engine stick to their principles here.
Promises to increase connectivity
Of the whole election so far, the digital policy which has perhaps received the most headlines is Labour’s “free full-fiber broadband to all by 2030”.
Back in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn won re-election as leader of the Labour Party on the back of such policy announcements as The Digital Democracy Manifesto. It’s not surprising that there is much reference to the emancipatory power of emerging technology and being properly connected in the current manifesto.
As the document states, the intentions behind the free broadband initiative are to – “boost jobs, tackle regional inequality and improve quality of life as part of a mission to connect the country”. It is firmly rooted in a fairly detailed nationalization plan which will see the establishment of British Broadband with two arms, British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and British Broadband Service (BBS), as well as bringing the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership.
While it is a little more buried in the Conservative manifesto, they have their own broadband plan too.
As is the case for nearly every policy point in the document, it is presented in reference to the UK’s ongoing relationship with the EU:
“We are Europe’s technology capital, producing start-ups and success stories at a dazzling pace. But not everyone can share the benefits”, it states.
“We intend to bring full fiber and gigabit-capable broadband to every home andbusiness across the UK by 2025.”
The policy is highlighted again in later pages as part of the government’s pledge to support rural life and coastal communities. “£5 billion in funding already promised”, it says. But beyond this, there is no detail on how much this broadband provision will cost to the end-user, nor to what degree it will be delivered by the private or public sector.
Education, skills and new technology
While the Conservative manifesto is presented through the lens of Brexit, the Labour manifesto is largely shaped by the environment and their central proposal to kickstart a ‘green industrial revolution.’
A skilled workforce is integral to this. The proposed National Education Service promises free education to everyone throughout their lives. This is of particular interest to those working in digital where we see re-training and re-skilling as increasingly important strategies to plug the skills gap in a fast-changing sector.
“With automation and the Green Industrial Revolution bringing major changes to industry,’ the manifesto states, ‘it is more important than ever that people have the opportunity to retrain and upskill throughout their lives…England already faces a shortage of people with higher-level technical qualifications, and demand for these skills will only grow as we create new green jobs.”
Skills are also a key feature for the Conservatives, despite the document failing to acknowledge the current gap businesses face.
A proposed £3 billion National Skills Fund is earmarked to upskill the British workforce.
“This fund will provide matching funding for individuals and SMEs for high-quality education and training”, the manifesto states.
“A proportion will be reserved for further strategic investment in skills, and we will consult widely on the overall design.”
The Conservatives also promise a further £2 billion to upgrade the entire further education college estate as well as planning to build 20 Institutes of Technology. Although there is little mention of what ends the skills fund and this education investment is for. Services are given a passing mention – “we should open up trade in services, in which the majority of us work and where most new jobs will be created.” – but there is little detail on what these service jobs are expected to be, how they will be supported by the state, and how they will be opened up.
Digital experience in health and public services
Healthcare is a massive issue in this election. Both parties are looking to emerging technologies as a way to help alleviate strains from underfunding and/or an aging population, as well as to improve diagnosis and patient experience.
Labour is pledging to increase spending across the health sector by an average of 4.3% per year. AI and cyber technology are two things earmarked for some of this investment, as well as state-of-the-art medical equipment. Their manifesto also acknowledges the importance of data rights to citizens within this increasingly digital area of our lives, promising to ensure:
- ‘Data protection for NHS and patient information.’
- ‘NHS data is not exploited by international technology and pharmaceutical corporations.’
The Conservative manifesto is not short on health tech promises either. They pledge to introduce an annual Health Technology Summit and they have also promised £1 billion extra annual social care funding to go towards – in part – new technology and facilities.
In the arena of citizen protections, the Conservative manifesto also proposes a new approach to cybercrime. “We will embrace new technologies and crackdown on online crimes”, the document states. “We will create a new national cybercrime force and empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence, along with the use of DNA, within a strict legal framework.”
The Labour party manifesto also devotes considerable wordcount to cybersecurity:
“Cybercrime and cyberwarfare are growing, all around the world. Every aspect of our lives, from the NHS to our nuclear facilities”, it states.
In response, the party plans to review two existing bodies – the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency – to increase powers, capacity, and skills where necessary.
Labour also wants to extend more rights to citizens online with their proposed Charter of Digital Rights, as well as planning to introduce imprints for digital political adverts in an effort to combat fake news. Additionally, as part of their welfare plans, the party wants to give users multichannel access (online, telephone, face-to-face, and outreach support) to make help and assistance easier to access for all.
Both parties want big digital corporations to pay more tax. For Labour, this is a costed part of their plan to help fund their free broadband rollout and other projects (£23.7 billion from reversing cuts to corporation tax, £6.3 billion from unitary tax on multinationals, and £6.2 billion from their Fair Tax Programme).
The Conservatives have also promised to implement a digital services tax although there is no mention in the manifesto or the accompanying costings document as to what this tax rate will be, what it will bring in to the government, and which digital services this is aimed at.
On this front, my guess is Google, Facebook, Amazon et al. will be more concerned if a Labour government gets in than if a Conservative one is re-elected.
Much reference is made to British Broadband in Labour’s costings document and it is easy to make the link between their tax and spend plans. When looking at broadband in the Conservative costings document, however, its cost as part of their infrastructure strategy is reiterated, but it’s hard to see how it will actually be funded.
Further analysis of both party’s costings documents highlights the divide between them
When it comes to skills, the link between the money that’s needed for Labour to roll out their Lifelong Learning is easy to see across two tables. Yet the Conservative manifesto and costings document are harder to process. There are numerous tables, as well as proposed investments such as the ‘National Skills Fund worth £3 billion’ (as it is described in the manifesto) looking like it won’t receive any more than ~£600 million per year from 2021 until the end of the parliament (adding up to just £1.8 billion in total).
This trend continues in the context of health and public services technology.
£1 billion for social care per year is certainly a welcome promise by the Conservatives – with an aging population, staff shortages, and the availability of emerging technologies that help with remote care and increased independence for citizens. But when turning to the costings document again, this is nearly a third of the total income from the first year of their Sources of Revenue table and it doesn’t fill me with confidence that a party operating in the wake of their own austerity measures can actually deliver these PR-quotable lumps of cash.
Takeaways for the parties
The search campaigns by both parties in the lead up to this election have positive and negative points.
The simplistic and memorable SEO approach from the Conservatives may well be all they need to convince voters. But through the lens of the Google SERPs, the “get Brexit done” slogan has brought about some negative sentiment and doesn’t seem to be driving the traffic as we might expect.
Closing note regarding the Labour Party
Labour, on the other hand, has seemingly tried to capture attention via a number of issues. This is reflected in the manifesto itself, the site structure and onsite SEO, and the traffic success the domain is having with niche key phrases such as “labour manifesto waspi”.
Closing note regarding the Conservative Party
Yet, to look at the above and assume that the Conservatives have been lazy with their online campaign is wrong. Their paid search activity appears to have been synchronized and calculated. And rather than put forward their own policies in an attempt to influence clicks to their manifesto content, they’ve turned their efforts to misleading users and firing cheap shots at Labour policies which are seeing a positive response online.
Of course, these underhand tactics within the SERPs weren’t an isolated incident.
The Conservatives were also criticized (by The New York Times and others) when their press office passed off partisan opinion as objective ‘fact-checking’ on Twitter. The party’s activists have also been found to be posing as the Green Party in Facebook ads (in an attempt to split the left-leaning vote).
In the world of digital marketing, all these channels carry weight, but I would argue that it is the party’s search activities that are the most worrying from a democratic point of view. There’s no shifting the blame to frivolous press office employees or activists here – fake microsites and time-sensitive paid search campaigns are far more strategic, and those in the upper echelons of the party should bear at least some responsibility.
Takeaways for digital businesses
The Conservatives have been punished by Google for some of their activities, but whether they are punished at the ballot box remains to be seen. In the world of search, it is never worth trying to deceive users or impersonate competitors for clicks.
Those of us working in the digital industries are very aware of both the challenges and the opportunities in a technologically transformed world. The skills gap is a very immediate issue for all businesses adopting digital tools and emerging technologies. It is important that there are state-supported programs to try and close this gap.
In the UK, we also need a government committed to connecting those in society who are left behind when it comes to broadband provision. This is significant for those wanting to start up digital businesses away from urban centers, as well as for those whose digital audiences will grow with the rollout of dependable internet in rural areas.
In the business context
Consumers expect data protections and commitment to security – as well as experiences that are seamless across channels and customer-led. As more and more parts of our lives become entwined with digital technology – be it in healthcare or other public services – we need to be able to trust that attitudes towards rights and data are citizen-led. Members of the public must be educated, empowered, and safe.
There is much pessimism about what is around the corner for the UK – a country faced with Brexit, the environmental crisis, and more besides. In a superficial sense, it’s possible to read these manifestos as a business owner and be daunted by the detail of corporation tax rises in the Labour document while feeling that the Conservatives would be a profit-friendly prospect. But it is the lack of detail in the Conservative manifesto which should be a major worry to corporations: the ‘digital services tax,’ the commitment to seemingly arbitrary investment lumps, and even ‘get Brexit done’ rings hollow after three years of failed negotiations – how can any corporation trust this?
A government that is committed to ethical, reasonable, transparent, and long term ideas about how we can work and live together is one that I feel we should be supporting at this election and those forthcoming in the US and elsewhere. After all, these are the virtues I would expect of a modern business faced with the challenges and opportunities of a future of digital transformation and emerging technology. It seems justified to expect this in politics too.
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