Search and the US elections: what can publishers learn from the SERPs?

Now that election day has passed, we take a look at the US search landscape around the 2020 Presidential Election, some of the key issues for voters as expressed in their searches, and which news sites were most visible. 

Another key strand here is how the search landscape looked like in the run up to election day. With Google and other search engines now showing a variety of result formats, it pays to understand how to take advantage of whatever the SERPs look like. 

For example, knowing when to produce video content, or to optimise for features like Top Stories or Answer Cards can help publishers to be visible for the most popular or important search terms. 

In our latest report, What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?, we look in detail at data around the US elections. 

In this article, we’ll summarize some of the key findings, and the lessons for publishers, and indeed any site that arise from the findings.

What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?

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Key issues as revealed by search results

These are the most searched terms in 2020 that are related to the elections. Coronavirus dominates of course, but we also see interest in race, foreign affairs, and key personalities involved in the elections. 

Most searched terms 2020 | Search volume | Google US

Screenshot 2020-11-23 at 17.04.46

It can help to look at broad categories to see how voters’ concerns change over time, and what was most important in the run up to the election. 

We can see, for example, that the two main issues – and perhaps the key concerns for many voters – closest to the election were race and the economy.

Category overview | Search trends over time | Google US Mobile 

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 09.29.29

Image source: Pi Market Intelligence

What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?

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Search volumes for politicians

In terms of Republican search volumes, Donald Trump dominates, as you’d expect, with search volumes increasing right up to election day. His daughter Ivanka features heavily, as does Donald Jr.

Republicans search volume
republicans

If we compare this data to the equivalent search results for key Democrat personalities, we can see that, before the confirmation of Joe Biden as the candidate in April and the announcement of Kamala Harris as his running mate, Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi generate more search volume. 

Democrats search volume
democrats

Indeed, Biden was only the most searched for Democrat just twice, with Kamala Harris generating 20m more searches in August. 

What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?

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What did the search landscape look like for the US elections? 

Using Pi’s Search Radar feature we can see which SERP features are appearing for election-related topics.

Essentially Google is choosing the features it thinks will satisfy searcher intent most effectively, and quite often these are not text links.

SERP Radar | US SERP landscape | All issues
Screenshot 2020-11-23 at 17.07.09

Image source: SERP Radar Pi’s SEO Platform

So, for election related searches, we see knowledge panels, People also ask, and video results, but the most common in relation to news is the Top stories feature, as in the example below. 

joe

We can see, for example, that a Top stories result guarantees higher visibility for publishers, so it pays to keep on top of the SERPs and create content that caters for each query. 

Google’s SERPs change like the weather though, and the types of results will vary from day to day. 

Take a look at the SERPs for the term ‘presidential debates’ (the final debate took place on October 22). A Knowledge panel result (taken from Wikipedia) was present throughout, but everything else was constantly changing.

Search term: ‘Presidential debates’ | SERP Matrix | Google US
serps

Image source: SERP Matrix Pi’s SEO Platform

Aside from this other content became more or less important as time went on. So Top stories were present all but one day, but became more prominent just after the debate. The same is broadly true for video content. 

So, a publisher might see trends like this and have stories ready to compete for the Top stories feature, along with video clips of debates and reactions to fill up the video content slots. 

The same principle holds whatever the search content type Google displays. For searches around ‘police reform’ for example, where ‘people also ask’ featured heavily.

In cases like this, explainer content from publishers can help to secure these slots. It can be as simple as seeing the questions people are asking and answering them clearly and succinctly.

SERP Matrix | Trending Term: ‘police reform’
Screenshot 2020-11-23 at 17.08.27

Image source: SERP Matrix Pi’s SEO Platform

The search landscape varies according to topics, and the sites that keep on top of these trends can gain some valuable insight into the kind of features that are typically shown, and the kinds of content that Google is looking for. 

SERP Radar | US SERP landscape | By issue

Screenshot 2020-11-23 at 17.09.18

Image source: SERP Radar Pi’s SEO Platform

If we look deeper into a foreiogn policy topic for example, we can see how the SERPS look across a two week period. 

For this topic, educational content is consistently prominent, with Knowledge panels and People also ask consistently in the top three or four results.

As a publisher, it would be useful to anticipate results like this, and create appropriate content. The benefit here, is that this is somewhere where more evergreen content can help, which means that the effort in creating useful content can ensure more long-term visibility for publishers in topic areas like this.

What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?

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Search term: ‘trade war’ | SERP Matrix  | Google US

trdewar

Image source: SERP Matrix Pi’s SEO Platform

How publishers can learn from the SERPs

Essentially, knowing the types of search results that Google prefers to show for different topics, in relation to events, or at different times, can help to inform publishing schedules, content creation, investment in areas like video content, and social strategy. 

A key place to start is the user. Google is looking to provide the most useful and relevant answer to the searcher, in the format it thinks is most useful. 

To the chagrin of many sites, this will sometimes stem from a desire to answer the searcher’s question in the results so they don’t need to click through to a page, but it’s still the price to pay for search visibility. 

People also ask questions and can be a valuable source of information here. It pays to consider whether your content is answering these user questions, what the questions tell you about user intent, and how they differ between locations. 

So, in terms of user intent, the question may tell you whether people want a quick answer, or whether they’re looking for more in-depth content. So, a question on the date of the next presidential debate, or when the next presidential term will require a sentence or two. 

However, questions like below on how to reactivate unemployment benefits will require some detail and perhaps step by step instructions as well as links to the appropriate advice or contact details. 

SERP Matrix | Questions on the economy vary by state
Screenshot 2020-11-23 at 17.10.11

Image source: SERP Matrix Pi’s SEO Platform

Essentially, users are telling you what they’re looking for, so it pays to pay attention to this information and use it to inform content strategy. 

What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?

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Which publishers gained the greatest visibility? 

The New York Times and CNN were the most visible news sources across both major search engines in October 2020. 

With roughly 81% market share compared to Bing’s 11%, Google is driving most traffic to publishers, though a presence on both is still valuable. 

Some notable observations here. Google doesn’t rate Fox News, which features around 16th on its list, while it’s more likely to feature results from the BBC, which doesn’t make Bing’s top 20.

Google vs Bing
Screenshot 2020-11-23 at 17.10.40

Image source: SERP Radar Pi’s SEO Platform

Conclusion

An event like the US election is vital for publishers, as it generates a level of interest in news content, and the potential to acquire new visitors (and customers for publishers with paid offerings like NYT and The Guardian). 

More than ever before, Google’s changing SERP features are a key consideration when looking to create content and achieve high search visibility around key topics. It’s a trend that is set to continue, as this is the direction Google is moving in. 

It therefore pays to be on top of changing search features, finding out which result types are more likely to be visible for key topics and at key times. 

To achieve this, publishers need to be on top of search trends, and they also require the speed and agility to be able to produce the type of content that is needed to answer the key questions that searchers are asking, and to do this at the right time to take full advantage. 

What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?

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Jon Earnshaw is joined by Matt Groch, SVP & Senior Partner at FleishmanHillard and Pi’s Customer Insights Manager, Peter Longton. to discuss ‘What Did Search Reveal About US Voter Concerns?’.