Domain name politics

By Jeremiah Johnston on April 24th, 2012

After what seems like months of endless campaigning, the US Republican Party has chosen who will stand against Barack Obama in the November elections. Step forward, Mitt Romney.

As always, the party election process was tightly fought, with a focus on who has skeletons in their closet, who has questionable ethics and whether their opponent is a committed father and husband.

Behind the scenes, there is a another battle being waged: the battle of the domain names.

In today’s world of Facebook, Twitter, Path, Pinterest, Google+ et al, it’s easy to believe that each politician builds his “brand” via these channels alone. Yet, while social networks represent excellent engagement tools, most campaigns still want to drive voters to a dedicated website, where they can find out more about the candidate, volunteer to help the campaign or make a donation. Social media is a bit like a wingman on a date: helpful, but not the main event.

Ten years ago, campaign websites were generally an afterthought for those looking for votes, and many successful candidates didn’t even have a website.

This has changed. If you want to find out more about Boris Johnson before the Mayoral elections, where do you go? Google, which you trust will connect you to Boris’s website, where you can find out whether he plans on extending the congestion charge to your area or not.

Yet despite this shift in how voters research and digest information, not all politicians have caught on. While campaigns employ whizzy, highly-paid managers to get politicians’ messages across in YouTube debates, no one seems to worry much about the importance of owning a relevant and obvious domain name. Very little time or expertise is dedicated to selecting a domain name that voters will flock too.

Take the recent US republican candidate elections. Another party held the typo website NewtGinrich.com, while RickPerry.com, the most obvious domain name for Rick Perry, was held by Ron Paul’s campaign. Is it a coincidence that neither Gingrich nor Perry progressed to the final stages?

Then there is Santorum, who also missed out on being in the final two. Santorum’s campaign failed to buy Santorum.com, and the result was pretty disastrous (not to mention that the site is very much NSFW).

Meanwhile, Romney’s campaign suffered the fewest online problems and was the ultimate victor. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps, although now he must go head to head against Obama, whose campaign is recognised as being ultra savvy online.

This isn’t an issue that only impacts US politics – far from it. In Germany, for example, the well-established CDU party has stolen the march on newcomers The Pirate Party, which had been working hard to attract more of a following. So the Pirate Party definitely missed a trick when the CDU secured domain names for local Pirate Party candidates, which now redirect users to the CDU homepage.

France, which has also been through a period of intense campaigning, has also seen its share of domain-name political fights. François Hollande, whose slogan is “le changement, c’est maintenant”, had the rug pulled from under his feet when the main incumbent political party, the UMP, bought the domain LeChangementCestMaintenant.fr, where it discredits Hollande’s policies. Sarkozy, too, has also been a victim, with the domain NicolasSarkozy2012.fr being used by a tattoo artist to promote her work.

The UK doesn’t fare much better. DavidCameron.com is used as a news site to poke fun at the Conservative Party, while DavidCameron.co.uk forwards you to deal sites, such as Groupon or eBay.

But David Cameron is not the only UK politician to have an ineffective domain strategy. For years, William Hague was represented online by “William Hague The Nudist”. This was, in fact, a man called Guy Houghton, who used William Hague’s .com name to promote a clothing-free lifestyle, rather than moderate euro-sceptic conservatism.

There have also been instances where it hasn’t been the politician, but their spouse which has sparked controversy. In 2008, CherieBlair.org featured a compilation of erotic poetry, for example.

At a time when technology is shaping the world around us, and most notably how we access, learn about and interact with politicians, it seems crazy that political parties have not learnt the importance and value of being properly represented online.

Clearly, it isn’t possible to register every single domain name that could be used to cast you in a negative light, but basic common sense dictates that the most obvious ones should be bought well in advance. Domain name disputes during elections are time-consuming and costly. Politicians all over the world need to recognise the need to fortify themselves online. Poorly thought-out strategies can be the difference between winning and losing.