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2017 General Election a search story illustration

2017 General Election: a search story

The votes are in, Theresa May is recovering from an election headache, Jeremy Corbyn is ‘celebrating a loss’ (Labour lost the election but gained 30 seats). The SNP were cut off at the torso and the DUP could move in with the Tories, and UKIP… who are UKIP again?

Theresa May called a general election because she thought she could gain a stronger mandate. This was based on the polls at the time (early April 2017). However, between that time and the election in June, she lost ground – despite eventually winning the most votes and taking many SNP seats.

  • How did this happen?
  • What were people searching for online during the election campaign?
  • What do polls, search and social trends during the General Election tell us about voter interests, concerns and voting intent?
  • And what can the data tell us about the digital marketing tactics used by Labour and the Conservatives?

Using a range of third-party analytics tools, we took a dive into the data to find some answers!

Key findings:

  1. People searched “Register to vote” 1.2 million times – mainly on 22 May (the last eligible day to register)
  2. The 2017 election saw 418,000 more votes cast than in 2015 – and 4 X more searches for ‘general election’
  3. Labour dominated Google searches: in May 2017 labour.org.uk had 1.8 time more visits (from Google) in May than conservatives.com
  4. People were fact checking what they had heard about the leaders: why he is or is not popular; ‘why Theresa May hard Brexit’?
  5. A key party-related search query was the Conservatives’ NHS policies
  6. Search terms reflect how little many voters seemed to know about the DUP as searches for them soared the day after the election
  7. The Conservative Party received most of their traffic (62%) from organic search
  8. Labour received their traffic from a broader range of sources: mostly organic search (45%), but more social media and referral traffic than the Conservatives’ campaign
  9. In the six months before the election announcement (18 April), the Conservatives had higher search visibility most of the time compared to Labour.
  10. After the release of the Conservatives’ manifesto (18 May), their search visibility shrank 23% and Labour’s visibility increased dramatically (31%)

Opinion polls

Polls can offer a glimpse into the political mindset of the nation before an election by surveying a sample of the population. The below graph was developed using data from the BBC’s poll tracker.

2017 General Election a search story illustration

[This image shows searches for the parties over time]

The Conservative Party’s support grew just after the EU referendum in June 2016, and their lead over Labour also grew after the General Election was announced in April 2017. But once the Tories announced their manifesto support for the party took a dive.

The Labour Party’s journey was the opposite. Since the nation voted for Brexit and Labour Party MPs passed a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn (28 Jun 2016), Labour’s support dropped in the opinion polls (9% from the highest point to the lowest point), widening the Tory lead.

However, the announcement of the General Election dramatically changed this decline. From April 2017, Labour started to gain on the Tories. Support for the party peaked around the time of the seven-party BBC election debate (31 May 2017).

UKIP, The Liberal Democrats and The Green Party all saw a decline in the months before the election was held. The SNP stayed consistent, a fact that’s surprising given that they lost 20 seats and gained only one.

Election search queries

With 32 million citizens casting their vote, the turnout this year was greater than in 2015. It’s therefore not a surprise to discover that the volume of election-related search terms increased…

“Register to vote” alone got 1.2 million searches, with the majority of these taking place on 22 May, the last eligible day to register.

2017 General Election a search story illustration

Interestingly, there was also a peak for the search term on election day, at which point is was too late to register.

Terms containing the word “election” got more than 1.7 million searches in May. And by looking at search interest for the term “general election” since 2004, you can see that this year’s election was the most searched for by a significant margin:

2017 General Election a search story illustration

Despite this vast difference, this doesn’t reflect the number of people that were registered to vote because:

The 2015 election saw only 418,000 fewer votes than in 2017 – but this year’s election had 80% more searches.

  • The same people who voted in 2015, may have engaged with the topic more – and more online
  • The 418,000 new voters created some or all of the spike – many of whom were younger and, therefore, use the web more
  • People who aren’t eligible to vote are also searching (for the first time)

We suspect that the unique nature of the election and what was riding on it, created a hype that drew in larger numbers of first-time voters than on previous occasions and made existing voters more engaged in the process.

Most frequent questions in Google

The top ten most searched for terms or questions during the six weeks leading up to the election were:

  1. Who to vote for?*
  2. When is election day?*
  3. Who will win?
  4. What election is coming up?
  5. Who to vote for quiz?*
  6. How election works?
  7. Are election polls accurate?
  8. Where do election polls come from
  9. Why election 2017?
  10. When are election results announced?

*These search terms were prefaced with ‘election’.

What do these search terms suggest?

People were looking for meaning and practical advice. They wanted to understand:

  • why they were voting
  • how to vote and
  • who to vote for.

Searching for “where do election polls come from?” and “are election polls accurate?” could be indicative of people’s desire to know who carries out the polls, their methods, and whether the results can be trusted.

Party search interest

According to Google Trends, Labour accounted for 43% of the searches in the lead up to the election. Conservatives only saw 23% of the searches:

2017 General Election a search story illustration

Looking at this trend over time reveals how Labour has dominated Google searches over the campaign period.

2017 General Election a search story illustration

Labour

The most searched questions related to The Labour Party in May 2017 were:

1. Why Labour is bad?
2. Where are Labour in the polls?
3. What [does] Labour stand for?
4. Are Labour going to win?
5. Are Labour left wing?
6. Who runs [the] Labour party?
7. What [does] Labour promise?
8. What Labour will do
9. Are Labour finished?
10. Who votes Labour?

What do these search terms suggest?

It’s pretty clear what was on people’s minds when searching the Labour Party: would Labour be “good” to have in power? When words like good and bad are used, this suggests people are looking at a party from a moral perspective as well as a competence perspective.

Questions about Labour’s position in the polls is a clear indicator that people wanted to know if the party was closing the gap on the Conservatives and stood any chance of winning, which may then have influenced who they finally voted for. People perhaps wanted to see if Labour really could win, what made them left-wing and what their policies were.

The search terms also show that not everyone knew that Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party. Even after the vast amount of press coverage he personally received, some voters apparently still didn’t know who ran the party.

Below are some of the top questions for Jeremy Corbyn:

1. Where is Jeremy Corbyn today?
2. Who is Jeremy Corbyn?
4. Why Jeremy Corbyn will never be pm
5. Where did Jeremy Corbyn grow up?
6. Which MPs support Jeremy Corbyn?
7. MPs who backed Jeremy Corbyn
8. Who has nominated Jeremy Corbyn?
9. Who supported Jeremy Corbyn?
10. Why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular

What do these search terms suggest?

People wanted to know more about Jeremy Corbyn’s background, his character, his popularity level and where he was on the campaign trail on any given day. This indicates people want to know and understand who they are voting for and not just the policies or promises on offer. Others wanted to know more about his leadership and the leadership contest, perhaps to establish how he ended up being leader and who backed him.

Conservatives (Tories)

The questions being asked about the Conservatives most often:

  1. Why vote Tories/Tory?
  2. Are Tories Conservative?
  3. Who votes Tory?
  4. Why Tories are bad
  5. Are Tories The Conservative Party?
  6. How many Tory MPs?
  7. Why Conservatives are right
  8. Who are Tories in UK?
  9. Are Tories privatising NHS?
  10. Are conservatives racist?

What do these search terms suggest?

It seems that there is some confusion about the Conservatives’ nickname ‘Tory’ – as though they are two different things – and where they lie as a party on the political spectrum. People also wanted to know why they should vote for the Conservatives: are they bad? Such questions suggests that people are looking at the party, as they did with Labour, from a moral standpoint.

Questions about how many Tory MPs existed could be an indication that people were trying to calculate odds. If they know how many seats a party has, for instance, they can get a sense of what is at stake and how large or small the gap is between the parties and thus the likelihood of closing the gap. This would be especially important to know for tactical voters.

What do people want to know about Theresa May? Below are the top searched queries:

  1. Who is Theresa May?
  2. What age is Theresa May/How old Theresa May?
  3. How much is Theresa May worth?
  4. How to contact Theresa May?
  5. What does Theresa May do?
  6. What did Theresa May say?
  7. Why Theresa May wants election?
  8. What Theresa May said
  9. How Theresa May voted
  10. Why Theresa May hard Brexit?

What do these search terms suggest?

As with Corbyn, people wanted to get a better idea of who May was as a person. Questions about her age and her worth (presumably financial) are interesting in that these weren’t in the top searches for Corbyn. Does that mean this has something to do with gender? Were people asking these because May is female?

Questions about what she said, did and how she voted also point to people fact checking i.e. confirming something because of doubt or incredulity perhaps. These questions are also another attempt to understand her as a person and her position on an issue.

DUP (Democratic Unionist Party)

The DUP were largely an unknown party to most of the UK… until the day after the General Election. After the Conservatives failed to secure a majority, they quickly looked to make a deal with DUP to jointly form a “supply and demand”  government – and search interest in them soared:

2017 General Election a search story illustration

Negotiations between the Tories and DUP are ongoing, so it remains to be seen how political search trends will be affected in the long term.

However, here are the most searched questions about DUP we could pull from the available data:

  1. Who are DUP?
  2. What is the DUP Party?
  3. What does DUP stand for?
  4. DUP on Brexit
  5. DUP Party policies

What do these search terms suggest?

That very few people (outside of Northern Ireland at least) knew very much, if anything, about who the DUP were and what they stand for. What’s encouraging is that people are interested in finding out, presumably because they want to understand how this party may affect their lives.

Digital marketing tactics

By analysing data from SEMRush, Searchmetrics and SimilarWeb, we can see which digital marketing tactics and channels were probably used.

Traffic overview

Web traffic to labour.org.uk increased at a greater rate than conservatives.com in the lead-up to the General Election:

2017 General Election a search story illustration

In May 2017 it was almost twice as many visits i.e. labour.org.uk had 1.8 time more visits in May than conservatives.com.

The significant traffic increase for both parties suggests that digital marketing tactics were used by both parties (and their supporters).

Although that’s not to say an increase in the use of digital marketing tactics was the sole cause of the increase in search activity, but it is very likely a significant contributing factor to it.

The competitive and sometimes contentious nature of an election campaign itself will of course influenced the type, timing and volume of searches being made.

But by breaking down the total traffic into channels, it’s possible to see where marketing efforts and money were focused:

2017 General Election a search story illustration

www.conservatives.com received most of their traffic (62%) from organic search, with little comparatively coming from email, social media or referral. For the Tories, more people were going to Google first and then clicking through to their website, than were reaching them through social media.

This could mean the so-called ‘Facebook effect’ may not have been in effect for the Tories, or at least less prevalent.

It could also mean that the Tories are doing a better job of getting their site ranking for their key terms in the search engines.

It could also mean that people deliberately chose to use search engines instead of social media when looking for answers about the Tories, especially if they thought social media was prone to #fakenews and search engines were less prone.

Labour used the same channels as the Tories for a broad marketing approach. However, the Tories’ traffic was less widely spread i.e. the vast majority came from organic, whereas significant amounts of Labour’s traffic came from organic (45%), social and direct.

This could mean that Labour is probably at less risk if one channel fails to deliver traffic. They’d still get significant traffic from the other channels. But for the Tories, if they fail to appear in the organic search rankings, they may find themselves with a serious shortfall in traffic to their site. The increased use of social media and referral campaigns paid off.

Handling the marketing message in organic search is more difficult than other digital channels. It could be that the Labour Party’s social influence was the driving force behind the increase in supporters.

Let’s dig deeper into organic and social performance.

Organic performance

The chart below shows organic search visibility for labour.org.uk and conservatives.com. The tool for this metric analyses millions of keywords to see where websites rank and calculates a score based on the results.

Unsurprisingly, the election had a significant impact on organic visibility for both websites. In the six months prior to the General Election announcement, the Conservatives had a higher visibility for most of the time.

However, after the announcement, Labour’s search visibility increased dramatically. But it wasn’t until 18 May, the day The Conservative Party released their manifesto, that search visibility peaked for Labour, and dropped significantly for the Tories.

2017 General Election a search story illustration

There were no obvious Google algorithm updates during the campaign and it’s unlikely there were major changes to the parties’ websites. It is likely that the nation’s search interest affected organic visibility.

Social visibility

Searchmetrics’ social visibility tool looks at how many social links appear on the web and estimates how many times those links are seen.

2017 General Election a search story illustration

Labour has a greater presence on social media than the Conservatives. Unfortunately, this metric isn’t tracked over time so we cannot see if this is a recent phenomenon or if this has always been the case. What we do know is that it looks as though Labour used social media more than the Conservatives in its campaigning – via official channels and at a grassroots level.

Recent statistics show that the ‘youth vote’ made a big difference – giving Labour that boost. This would tally with them having a larger social presence (young people being online more).

Most shared social posts at the end of the campaign according to Buzzsumo:

Conservative

Labour 

Social media monitoring tool Buzzsumo shows that the most shared posts came from left-leaning media outlets such as the Independent and the Guardian. Are these publishers more powerful than their right-wing peers (Sun, Times, Telegraph)? Or are people just engaging with left-leaning messages more? Or are left-wing voters more likely to be on social media and more likely to share a post compared to ring-wing voters? Either way, social media engagement seems to have favoured Labour more than the Conservatives.

Conclusion

The data seems to show that Labour and the Conservatives both drew traffic from the same channels but in different quantities and at different times e.g. launching a manifesto clearly attracts a lot of attention in a party, which is then reflected in the type and volume of searches for them.

Search data gives us a good idea of where each party may have invested its marketing budget and thus which channels they thought would deliver the best return i.e. the greatest number of people clicking through to their site or engaging with their content on social media. The Conservative Party were heavily dependent on organic traffic while Labour drew traffic from a wider range of channels and saw a much greater response from social media compared to the Tories.

Search results also help us understand what people were most concerned about during the election e.g. specific policies, leaders’ personalities and supporters, and the arrival of the DUP who were a largely unknown player to many voters in the UK prior to election day.

One picture of what happened:

The Conservative manifesto was launched

News outlets started to report on the ‘hard’ Conservative manifesto, Labour surged in the polls, people started to think they may be in with a chance or that the Tories were not a dead cert.

The hype storm and the undecideds

This sent Labour’s grassroots into overdrive, posting news and whipping up support. Search volumes increased, perhaps because ‘floating voters’ wanted more information and tactical voters were deciding whether to switch from other parties.

The 418,000

The increased marketing activity may have raised huge amounts of awareness among people who don’t usually vote or engage online with politics and urged them to search for “who should I vote for”?

Other possibilities include: online coverage about contentious policies and negative press surrounding the leaders may have caused committed voters to question or reconsider who they were going to vote for.

Search and ranking

The disproportionate search for Labour-related terms were most probably fulfilled by content on the labour.org.uk website.

As a result, this may have increased the domain’s visibility in organic search and subsequently returned labour.org.uk for even more searches.

What is very clear is that the internet plays a huge part in election campaigning and different parties are attracting attention from different sources. People used both search and social media to answer their political questions, fact check and help them decide which party or candidate to vote for – or at least, who not to vote for.

Do you remember what happened at the last election, the Brexit vote or the US election? Read our search stories: 

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