J.D. Vance is running for Senate in Ohio, yet when you Google “JD Vance” or even “JD Vance Campaign” or “JD Vance Senate” his campaign website does not appear.
What explains this?
If you were to ask Twitter today, you’d get a few theories about Google’s conscious role in suppressing Vance’s political ambitions:
But is this what’s really happening? Is someone at Google leaning on the algorithm in order to silence a critic of Big Tech?
Almost definitely not.
In fact, if we look at history of Mr. Vance’s website, we can see why Google would not privilege his domain namesake over sites like Wikipedia, Twitter, Politico, The Guardian, The New York Times, or Vance’s publisher, Harper Collins.
A Pictorial History
Wayback machine offers us snapshots of websites, so we can’t be sure when Vance abandoned his website, but sometime between July 2017 and August 2017 the website stopped being used. It then lays fallow until it’s resurrected in March of 2021.
2016 through July 2017
Uh oh. The website can’t be found. Maybe someone didn’t pay their Weebly bill?
Vance’s Domain seems to be “parked.” You commonly see this sort of placeholder page appear when a domain is still owned, but no longer pointing to a web server.
As recently as February 11th, Vance’s site continued to be parked.
As of March, Vance’s website had transformed into a portrait set over a collection of grey-on-grey identities.
Sometime between March and July 1st, Vance launches his campaign site.
History by the Numbers
Though Vance may not like Google, at one point, Google loved Vance. In the wake of Trump’s victory in 2016 and the scramble to explain how it happened, Vance profited tremendously from Google. At peak, his website was bringing in the equivalent of $60,000 in paid traffic per month through his free Google rankings, according to estimates from Ahrefs Site Explorer.
That’s an estimated 75,000 visits in June of 2017:
Vance’s site was so visible because everyone was writing about him. Using numbers from Ahrefs, Vance’s website at one point had over 63,000 webpages linking to it, also known as “backlinks.” Since its inception, Google has used backlinks to determine the relevance of content.
But even with all those backlinks, jdvance.com was only the 4th search result for “jd vance” (the second instance of “jd vance” shown below is likely “J.D. Vance” truncated), 4th for “hillbilly elegy,” and impressively 3rd for “jd,” beating out Juris Doctor programs all over the country.
So even when he was experiencing a rush of Google traffic, Vance’s site wasn’t #1. Was it Google’s political bias back then?
No. Vance could have been outranked by the Amazon listing for his book, Hillbilly Elegy’s New York Times review, his Wikipedia page (created in March of 2017), or any of the other mega media outlets that reviewed his book or wrote about him.
That’s because Google is in the business of serving its users, not privileging vanity domain owners. Most users probably wanted to buy his book, read a review, or learn more about him from a third-party, not from the man himself.
This stuff makes sense. No thumb on the scales here.
Vance for Senate
So why isn’t Vance ranking for “jd vance” at all now?
Well, it’s complicated. Which is to say, it’s not as simple as “Google hates Vance,” but ascribing ill intentions to actors you dislike is much simpler than understanding the mechanisms that govern a complex system.
First, because of his book and his ongoing effort to raise his own political profile, Vance has been written about a lot. Google has over 35 million pages index for “jd vance” and while not all of those pages are likely about this JD Vance, it’s still a good indicator of his popularity and notoriety. National Review, CNN, The Washington Post, AP News, and just about every other highly-ranked, high-prestige news outlet imaginable has written about Vance. This sort of competition makes it hard to rank for any search term.
Compare this to Jane Timken, also running in the Republican Senate Primary in Ohio. The keyword “jane timkin” only returns 465,000 result in Google with her Senate campaign website ranked at #1.
While Timkin has also been covered by highly-ranked outlets like AP News and Politico, the volume of coverage is nowhere near the same as Vance. And, so long as some of those outlets are linking to her campaign site, her site is likely to accrue authority faster than any single outlet and she’ll continue to own the #1 position for her name.
The same could have been true for Vance, who was once the proud owner of a site with 63,000 backlinks, but he tossed that out for some reason in 2017. Because of that decision, his newly-launched campaign website is now competing against four years of his incredibly successful PR efforts without any of the links generated by those efforts.
Even so, the campaign site Vance launched doesn’t take advantage of the link equity he could still gain from his defunct author site. Below is a screenshot of the broken backlinks report for jdvance.com from Ahrefs Site Explorer.
If Vance simply redirected
/about on his new site, he could reclaim links not only from the broken links registered in this report, but also from the ridiculous number of high Domain Rating (DR) domains that once linked to his site.
High-ranking domains like nytimes.com or vox.com confer more link authority than other sites as Google not only considers backlinks when rating a site, but the backlinks for those backlinks. That is, sites that have lots of links pointing to them pass along more link authority than sites with fewer links pointing to them.
If Vance also created a new page for his former
/family.html pages, he’d reclaim even more lost link equity.
But What About Duck Duck Go?
Oh, the age-old question. DuckDuckGo is producing largely the same results for “jd vance” as you can see.
But when searching “jd vance campaign website,” as Mickey Kaus suggested on Twitter, the results are different:
Here I think the differences are explained again without resorting to conspiracy theories.
The most basic explanation is that DuckDuckGo is giving weight to the domain name, whereas Google is not.
I think this makes sense from the perspective of the Google. Google’s ranking algorithm sees a website that once had dozens of pages with thousands of links being replaced by a 3-page website asking for money. This is a sign of a low-quality spam site using a once-successful domain.
DuckDuckGo on the other hand has a far less sophisticated approach and much less historical data, so it’s using the domain name as a search signal, especially when the word “website” is being using as part of the query.
This may seem like a good idea, but consider that Google has spent years de-spamming its results through employing increasingly sophisticated textual analysis, natural language processing, and detection of link schemes.
That’s why if you search “best toaster” on Google, you get results that conform with Google’s YMYL (your money, your life) and E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trustworthiness) anti-spam policies whereas DuckDuckGo still returns results like best-toaster.com, a spammy low-value site if I’ve ever seen one.
In short, DuckDuckGo is like the proverbial broken watch—it’s still right about a twice a day. Meanwhile, Google responds to 5.6 billion searches a day, usually with better results.
JD Vance let a valuable website go to waste and is paying the price right now. Probably not for long, as I’m sure the links to his new site are pouring in. In fact, halfway through writing this piece Ahrefs update its database and no longer shows historical search data for jdvance.com. Instead, it’s showing results for JD Vance for U.S. Senate.
My guess is that Google will soon similarly re-contextualize this website and adjust its rankings for “jd vance” and related terms accordingly.
In the meantime, people on Twitter will keep attributing to malicious human actions things they don’t understand and, annoyingly, don’t seem to want to understand.
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