Search engine optimization against the far-right

Introduction

Google has become the go-to for all types of information, and when we search (or "google") something, we usually click on the first, second or third result. Google's search engine logic is therefore critical to what content we read (and don't read).

How can leftist and feminist organizations move to the top of the search results, and thereby reach a larger audience?

Feministclickback.org aims to provide information about search engine optimization (SEO) and a step-by-step guide for implementing a strategy for your site.

Intended audience

This guide is primarily – but not exclusively – intended for:

  1. Activists who want to start a new website and use SEO
  2. Activists who want to reach a wider audience by adding SEO to an existing site.

[[ In the original German text we use a * while writing about gender to indicate that we are referring to not only men or women, but also people with a gender identity that does not fit neatly within the gender binary. In the English translation that shouldn't necessarily apply, but if you have feedback or questions about the terms and language we use, we would love to hear from you. ]]

Table of Contents

How to use this guide

No prior SEO knowledge is necessary to use this guide, however some previous skills in building and maintaining your own website will be helpful. All websites use different tools and frameworks (e.g. Wordpress), and it isn't in the scope of this guide to include information on all website technologies. If you ever get stuck, try searching for specific terms in relation to your Content Management System (CMS).

If you really want to get the most out of SEO it is important to have a solid understanding of how it works, not just go through checklists. Although it seems cumbersome, understanding the "Technical Background" section will be vitally important for your ability to make decisions and understand later sections. To help develop your SEO strategy, the "Political Context" section provides information about how Google handles feminist-related terms and how anti-feminist sites use SEO. This section also includes advice for those with an existing site.

Finally, there is a Glossary of the most important terms. Terms from the Glossary are referred to in this guide with a ‣.

NOTE: Prominence in search results has a lot of advantages, but can also bring problems. If a group is more visible, it can also be attacked more easily. Find resources about security and hate speech on the web here:

Idea

There are two kinds of Google search results: paid advertisements, marked with a small label at the top, and organic search results, that begin underneath. The latter can't be bought. Instead, Google sorts them according to an algorithm, depending on how relevant Google thinks they are for a search term. The website deemed the most relevant is at the top.

Organic search results vs. paid advertisements/

[[ In some circumstances, paid ads could also be useful for political campaigns. The strategy is different, though: Paid ads are short-term and can be used during a limited time, when it makes sense, for example around a specific event. Price depends on the popularity of the search term and how long the ad is up. SEO, on the other hand, is a long-term strategy. ]]

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the attempt to build a website so that it appears as high up as possible in the ‣organic search results.

Many leftist and feminist projects create websites in order to make their information and activities more accessible to a wider audience, which furthers their goals of education, publishing reports or simply being a contact point. These websites often have incredible amounts of useful information in them and take lots of energy to produce and maintain, but when it comes to spreading this information, there is often a lot of potential left unused. When a website link is posted on flyers or spread through social media, it might only reach those who already know the project or are already connected in some way to that specific scene.

SEO offers the opportunity to reach an entirely different audience in addition to existing social circles. For many, Google is their entry point to the internet and the first place they look for information. Very few people click past the first page of results, and that means that the results on the third, fourth or fifth page have almost no chance of being viewed. Around 30% click on the first result, 15% on the second result, and after that the percentages sink dramatically (see this Google click-through rate study).

What's more, many right-wing and anti-feminist sites already use SEO to spread their messages. Feminist and leftist sites are doing comparably poorly: A google search for „Abortion“ yields more results for the "Right-to-life" movement than for health or feminist organizations. When you search the terms "Gender Mainstreaming" or "Definitionsmacht", you quickly find the „wikiMANNia“ site, a German right-wing anti-feminist site that is extremely well-ranked for many relevant search terms.

The internet is a fought-for place and it‘s important that leftists exploit all potential tools in their fight.

From a leftist and feminist perspective, we must continue to critique search engine companies in the capitalist market. In that sense, it is important and understandable that people move away from using Google & Co. The scope of this guide, however, is not whether or not leftists can or should use Google – but how leftists can use Google as a strategic tool to reach people who are not yet politized.

Google has a 90% market share in Germany and 88% worldwide (see Study from 2014 [german]). As long as the majority of people use Google, it woulnd‘t make sense to completely dismiss SEO as a strategy. This guide therefore doesn't critique Google, it simply offers a way to reach people on the internet where they already are.

TECHNICAL BACKGROUND

How do search engines work?

Search Engines first have to know which websites exist in order to show relevant search results. To figure this out, search engines use special programs called ‣bots to continuously search the web and find sites. The process is called ‣crawling. These ‣bots are also sometimes called "spiders".

The ‣bots crawl endlessly through the internet by following links that bring them to the next site. Sites they find relevant end up in a database. As soon as the ‣bots find a site, they decipher the ‣source code, try to understand the content, and decide which are the related search terms. This process is called ‣indexing (cataloging) and the database is called the ‣index. These databases are huge (over 100 million GB) and are saved in computing centers all over the world. Search engines can manage to give an answer to a search term in just a few milliseconds due to the fact that these ‣index databases have already pre-sorted the internet.

Relevance and popularity are the most important ‣ranking factors that decide whether a site is ranked first, second, third, etc. The search engines try to understand not only whether the results are ‣relevant to the search term, but also how users behave on that site. They evaluate ‣user signals to see whether or not users found the information they were looking for (‣popularity).

Search engines in detail

Google Ranking Factors

So how is it possible to design a website so that it‘s relevant for certain search terms?

‣Ranking factors are extremely complex – today Google uses over a hundred different ones. Unfortunately Google does not publish which ones it uses because it would hinder their competitiveness in the market.

Nonetheless, there are a few strategies that have proven efficient. They are covered in the following four sections. This background information is vital to understanding the practical "How to" section, which can be found in the last section.

1. Websites from a search engine‘s perspective

Search engines see websites differently than people do. If a search engine‘s ‣crawler comes across a website, it follows its links to find the single pages of it, and then deciphers its ‣source code in order to understand the site as a whole.

The structure of a website is therefore quite important. Only one ‣URL can rank for one search term (or several terms, if they all serve the same search intent, but we will come to that later). Say someone searches the term „Feminist movement“, and the same website has five different pages related to this topic. If the contents of the five different pages are too similar to one another, the search engine will not be able to differentiate between them and in the end won't choose any of them. This is called ‣duplicate content in SEO jargon.

To avoid this, each sublink should have its own clear topic. A tree structure can be quite helpful in this regard: a main site has links to its main topics and from there are links to sites with more detailed information:

Tree structure: Correct structure for SEO

It is much easier for a search engine to understand a website‘s content if it uses this tree structure. It should be easy for both users and search engine crawlers to get from the main page to the most important pages (those that should rank well) in as little clicks as possible.

How do the search engines understand what a site is about? They evaluate the previously mentioned ‣source code. The most important thing to the ‣bot is the text content – images, videos or other kinds of content are more difficult for the ‣bot to evaluate and understand. They will be taken into account, but make sure not to have important content solely in image or video format.

During the evaluation, the ‣bot looks for ‣keywords in the content. They also weigh different sections differently – for example, the first paragraph and title are more important than the last paragraph. The ‣bots assume that the last paragraph is not as relevant as the first, and so on.

The ‣title and ‣description of the site are also quite important. Both of these values aren‘t visible on the site, but exist in the ‣source code. These show up in the search results list:

SEO title and description

Google creates its own ‣title and ‣description for your site, but you can also do this yourself, to increase the chances that Google chooses yours. The ‣title and ‣description are in the source code only. ‣Keywords in the title are also important for the ‣ranking factor.

It used to work quite well to hide as many ‣keywords as possible on the site – for example at the very bottom of the site in the same color as the background. Today, this is not as easy because Google can reliably see through those kinds of tricks. The terms and ‣keywords should be featured prominently in your text, but the priority should be that it makes sense and is appealing to readers, not search engines, otherwise it will appear forced.

Any text that links to another site – called ‣anchor text – is also important. A link in source code looks like this:

If there are a lot of links on a site with the ‣anchor text "Feminism", then it‘s a signal for search engines that this ‣URL must be relevant to the search term "Feminism".

2. The right answer to the right question

If every subpage must have a clear theme in order to avoid ‣duplicate content, it also means that every subpage can only be optimized for one ‣search term, or for one collection of search terms that mean the same thing or serve the same intention.

For example, people who search "Feminism in the 70s" and "Women's movement 70s" are most likely looking for the same thing. A site about feminism in the 70s should therefore try not to optimize for all of those different search terms (e.g., three different ‣URLs). It would actually hurt the site's SEO if they did that.

Search engines use ‣user signals to measure if a site fulfills the user‘s search intent. ‣User signals include: how far users scroll, if users follow links on the page to other sites, if users use interactive elements on a page, and many more.

Fast load times and readability are therefore relevant to a site's SEO as well. Search engines prefer sites that are fast, easy to navigate and whose content reaches the broadest variety of users.

3. More links to your site, more love

Besides ‣user signals, search engines measure ‣popularity based on how many external sites link to your site.

Every link is like a recommendation: because a person linked to your site, it means that they read the site and found it good or at a minimum found it relevant. But every link doesn‘t have the same value – if the site linking to you also has high-quality links on it, then reflects good on your site.

From Google‘s perspective, it‘s much better if a site like Wikipedia or BBC links to your site than if smaller blogs or spam sites link to your site. It‘s also better if the site linking to your site has a thematic relevance to your site. If the sites are too different, then it‘s possible that Google doesn‘t understand the connection between the two.

To make it more complicated, there are multiple types of links, which are all evaluated differently. An HTML link looks like this:

The user only sees the anchor text and clicks it to follow the link. One can also add another attribute to the link to manipulate how a search engine sees the link. A ‣nofollow attribute means that a search engine should not follow the link. The link only counts towards the SEO of a website (positive and negative) if it does not carry a ‣nofollow attribute, that means if it is a normal link without any "rel" attribute. They are also called ‣dofollow links. Those are the good ones. In HTML, a ‣nofollow link looks like this:

Generally, the more "good" links, the better ("good" and "bad" in reference to Google‘s definition). For instance, if a site is linked to from spam, it itself could also potentially be spam, thereby devaluing its value in Google's eyes. Therefore, the links aspect of SEO attempts to not only prove popularity, but the trustworthiness of a site.

Graphic of external links pointing to two different websites, one where the external websites don't relate to the topic of the linked website at all and some links are spam, and one where the links are high quality and make sense thematically

[[ Proceed with caution: Links can cancel each other out. If two websites link to each other, it doesn‘t help the SEO of either site (of course, those links might make sense for other reasons, this is simply the SEO perspective). This is one of the unfortunate side affects of SEO – it leads to unfair competition in the internet where sites are trying to be linked to as much as possible, but themselves link to very few other sites. In the left scene, however, websites in solidarity with one another could reach agreements. ]]

How often a site is linked to on social media (especially Facebook and Google+) also increases a site‘s popularity.

Links with problematic content: If you want to link to a site that you do not support, it should always have the ‣nofollow attribute. This prevents the site from getting a higher search ranking from your link. Another option is to use the service Donotlink.it. This service generates a link that in addition to carrying the nofollow-attribute prevents the linked site from knowing where the clicks came from.

4. How effective is SEO?

SEO is not a straightforward process and the results aren‘t straightforward, either. There is no proven method that will result in 100% success. Sometimes the reasons behind your rank in search results is like a black box – you throw a bunch of stuff inside and it‘s unclear what‘s happening behind the scenes. For one thing, the ‣ranking factors themselves aren‘t transparent. The rules of the game are also constantly in flux.

[[ To learn more about Google‘s updates to its algorithm: Overview of Google updates [english] ]]

Competition is another huge factor – if a lot of websites are competing for relevance to the same search term, it becomes a lot harder to move up in the rankings (and stay there). Hard fought search terms are ones that have the largest ‣search volume, meaning that lots of people search them and that they are connected to specific interests, for exmample search terms that have a specific consumer intention, such as "Where can I find the best shoes“, which are relevant for businesses. What people search for is also constantly changing.

Newer websites have it considerably harder than others established ones. If it doesn‘t work to reach first place for a tough search term at once, it is no reason to worry. Don't make abrupt decisions and start changing your page; instead, stick to your strategy if you're confident that it is good. If the page is ranking poorly, but it is ranking, Google occassionally tests it on higher positions, and the tendency is that it is moving upwards, that is a good sign. Then you just need to have some patience and maybe update the content every once in a while slightly, so it is always up-to-date. If the page is not ranking at all over a course of two weeks, especially if it is not even indexed (that means, you can't find it if you search for the URL in Google), that indicates a problem. Another indication is when the page is constantly ranking poorly, not moving up at all, not even fort short tests, over a period of several weeks. Only then should you evaluate and revise your concept.

POLITICAL BACKGROUND

How Google handles feminist-related searches

The following is a current snapshot of how Google handles search queries related to feminism. This analysis should aid in developing a strategy, but keep in mind that it is by no means complete and subject to change.

If you want to get a more accurate look at average search results, the tool www.impersonal.me will show search results without any personalization from Google. Google collects information about internet users in order to individualize search results and impersonal.me makes it possible to see which search results are shown on average.

1. General ‣Keywords such as "Feminism"

For more general ‣keywords it‘s harder to discern the user‘s ‣search intention – Does the searcher want a definition? Different sides of the debate? Or a feminist organization or newspaper? For this reason, Google shows many different types of websites on the first page and usually leads with a definition of the term. These results depend on which are clicked the most and often include at least one anti-feminist site, often „wikiMANNia“.

2. Searches with a feminist intention

If the search is clearly intended for feminist results, then in most cases feminist search results will appear. For example, „feminist meetups in Berlin“ or „feminist magazine“.

3. ‣Keywords for controversial topics

Anti-feminist sites show up quite often on the first page for ‣keywords that have a controversial debate surrounding them, such as "Gender mainstreaming" or "Definitionsmacht". This is most likely because anti-feminist websites focus on these topics, and thus have a lot of content on them.

‣Keywords with an anti-feminist or feminism-critical intention

Anti-feminist websites dominate the search results for ‣keywords like „Feminism critique“ or „gender critique“. Similarly for terms that anti-feminists have either defined or strongly influenced like „Homo lobby“ or „Genderismus." Here, Google deems them the experts.


Generally, the controversial ‣keywords are strategically most relevant because they are used in media debates and thereby tend to have high search volume. Someone who searches for „Men‘s rights“ can be a hardened anti-feminist, or they could be a person who is interested in the discussion and doesn‘t have a fully-formed opinion yet. It is therefore quite important to provide that person with some feminist view points on the topic, so that there is variety in what they are offered.

Secondly, it‘s important to keep in mind less-discussed ‣keywords such as „sexual orientation“, seeing that these topics have a lot of internet content from anti-feminist sites. These sites unfortunately spring to the top of the list due to the fact that there is rather little feminist content to compete with. It would therefore be good to keep an eye on anti-feminist sites: what are they optimizing for, where are they performing well in search results, which ‣search intentions are behind those ‣keywords, and is it worth the effort to try to compete?

Algorithms‘ alleged neutrality
We can‘t forget that the fight for places in search engine optimization doesn‘t happen on a level playing field – knowing the rules increases the chances of winning, but Google always has the last say. And the criteria that it applies to do this are also not neutral.
For example, the brand factor plays an important role: if a brand is well-known and influential, then their search results are placed higher in search results, independent from how well-optimized their website is for SEO. Google therefore contributes to stabilizing existing (capitalist) power relationships.
It is a political decision for Google to list sites with inhumane content, which happens solely because they are able to hide behind their alleged neutrality.

SEO in the Anti-Choice Movement

It is clear from the structure and build of Anti-Choice websites that they use SEO strategies and are successful at it. In Germany, for ‣keywords like "Abtreibung" (abortion) and other related searches such as "Abtreibungspille" (abortion pill), Pro-Life sites appear in the first page of results. The German feminist organization Pro Familia do not appear until much later.

In the USA, the Anti-Choice movement has used SEO as a strategy for a long time, as reported in an article by the New York Times. By using SEO, Anti-Choice groups manage to reach their target audience - pregnant people -, push feminist organizations to the bottom of the list (or worse, out of the running completely), avoid feminist protest.

This strategy is especially malicious because pregnant people who are considering an abortion often use the internet to find information. Abortions are still so stigmatized in society that there‘s often no person to talk to about one‘s situation. Anti-Choice organizations use this situation as an opportunity and on their websites offer telephone hotlines which provide counseling and help – in the end advising them not to get an abortion. We have to fight back!

HOW-TO GUIDE

Now we‘ll take a closer look at the practical side of SEO, from research and choosing the right keywords to implementing the strategy on-site.

Keyword research step-by-step

Keyword research is about finding the right keywords to optimize for. Even if you already know which keywords you‘d like to target, it‘s worth investing some time in research because keyword research is not only about finding a list of target words, but also about getting to know the searchers‘ intent behind those words and related topics. And you might find synonyms with an even higher search volume.

1. Define your goal and target group

Who do you want to reach and to what end?

2. Brainstorm

Brainstorm a first list of words you‘d like to optimize for. You can also just take your topic and write down the most important terms related to it. Would a person who searched for these terms find what they were looking for on your website? Look at other websites that are currently ranking for these terms to find inspiration for related topics and synonyms.

Finding the right language: Feminist movements have always tried to show how language reeinforces oppression, and found ways to label things differently. From an SEO perspective, this can be challenging, because as long as new word creations are not commonly used by a lot of people, they‘re also not searched for in search engines. Until feminist language becomes mainstream, it can make sense to adopt a two-pronged approach: to optimize for mainstream words because those are the ones that people search for, but reflect their problematic qualities in the text. Unless, of course, they are so problematic that their use would be unethical.

3. Use research tools

There are some free tools that help you find keywords. Type a generic term and the tools will make suggestions for related terms with search volume, using data from Google. (Attention: For some of these tools, you have to register with an email address, and often, there is a limit to how often you can use it for free per day. This makes using the free versions cumbersome, but there is no way of getting around it - you'll need the information. Always use a variety of tools to get the most out of them. KW Finder lets you upload a list of up to 200 words to check at one go.)

Knowing common search terms for a topic with their respective search volume is not only helpful for SEO purposes, but also for getting to know current debates in society.

4. Find out the search volume

Find out the average monthly Google search volume for your keywords using the before-mentioned keyword research tools.

5. Make a selection

Evaluate your list so far. Which keywords have the most search volume? Which topics seem to be on people‘s minds? Does the search intent behind those keywords match your goal? (You can estimate search intent by googling the term with impersonal.me and looking at the first ten results to find out what content they have.) Make a selection of keywords to optimize for. Note that low search volume doesn‘t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It shouldn‘t be too low to be worth the effort, but as long as the search intent is aligned with your goals, you will still reach the right people.

For a new website or a website that doesn‘t have at least some good rankings to build on, it can be tough to rank for keywords with high search volume, because competition for these is high, too. Often, the algorithm tests new websites and pages for low-volume keywords first and then, if user signals are good, slowly tests them for other keywords as well. This is why SEO is often a long-term strategy.

5. Assign URLs to each keyword (group)

Now take your selection and use them to build the structure of your site. Each keyword needs its own URL. Keywords with the same search intent can share a URL (in this case, the keyword with the most search volume will be the primary keyword, and all others will be secondary keywords. Secondary keywords are usually synonyms or relate to different aspects of the same topic.) It helps to make a list of this, or a mind map.

All keywords in the right place

Now take your plan and start implementing it on-site. The following checklists will help you position your keywords in all the right places.

These are the places where you should include the primary keyword:

  • In the URL
  • In the main headline
    In HTML marked as ‣< h1 >. Important: There can only be one ‣< h1 >.
  • In the first sentence
    The first sentence or paragraph should summarize the content of the page and mention the keyword at least once.
  • In other headlines, if it makes sense
    Important: Keep a clear chronological order of headline in HTML as < h2 >, < h3 > etc.
  • In the rest of the text
    It shouldn‘t sound forced, but make sure to mention the keyword every now and then where it makes sense. Use synonyms, too.
  • In the ‣ALT-text of images
    The main function of ALT-texts is to provide a substitute text in case an image can't be displayed, and to increase accessibility, e.g. for people using screen readers. Make sure to make keep this a priority, and include keywords where they actually say something about the image.
  • In ‣title und ‣description

After a certain number of letters or pixels, respectively, Google automatically cuts ‣title and ‣description. A good tool to test how your page would look like in the search results is https://www.sistrix.de/serp-snippet-generator/

Secondary keywords

After you finished writing, check that the text includes your secondary keywords. Often, you've already used them because it made sense for the topic. A SEO-friendly structure of a text is to take secondary keywords and, if it makes sense, use them for subsections. For example, if you're writing a text about abortion and secondary keywords are "abortion methods," "abortion pill," "abortion access," you could make these the names of sub-headlines and write a paragraph about them.

Tip: There is a plugin for wordpress called Yoast SEO ‣Plugin that automatically checks these things for you. If keywords are missing in important places, the plugin will show you where (but don‘t take it at face value).

Descriptive URLs

‣URLs should:

  • be understandable for humans (no mere numbers or random letters)
  • contain keywords
  • give a clue as to the structure of the website and the content of the page, e.g. https://www.feminismus.de/ informationen/ abtreibung/ rechtliche-lage/
  • be generic and timeless – if you have content on your website that you update in regular intervals (for example, a list of feminist camps every summer), establish one URL that you update, not create a new URL each time. This way, you don‘t have to start from scratch with every new page but instead build on rankings this page has already achieved.

External links & social media

There are many ways to achieve links to your website and technically no limit to your creativity. Basically, it is outreach work that you might probably already be doing anyways. But these are a few basic tips:

  1. Ask friendly websites to link to you.
  2. Research websites that might find your work relevant and write to them.
  3. Write guest posts for blogs or online magazines and make sure they link back to you.
  4. You might want to create content that is especially prone to be linked a lot, either because it is particularly helpful or funny/exciting.
  5. Curate social media accounts, if that‘s available to you. Always share your own images, videos etc. with a link to where people can find them on your website. This way, you make it easier for people to link to the website because you‘re immediately providing them with the source, and also the link to the website spreads through social media when people share the post.
  6. Be careful who you link to. Don‘t link to websites that currently rank for the same keywords that you‘re targeting. This sends a signal to search engines that the other website is more relevant for this search term.

Internal links

Ideally, how the pages of your website link to each other reflects the tree structure you developed during keyword research.

Checklist for internal links

  • The most important subpages are linked most often, that means they're easily reachable from the main page.
  • Don't overuse navigation bars and footer - only link to the most important pages from there, or the ones where it is absolutely necessary (like the impressum).
  • Text links are valuable for SEO. Wherever it makes sense for the reader to be referred to another page of your website, include a link in the text with the keyword that the linked page should rank for as anchor.
  • Add a ‣Sitemap

Interaktive elements

If the content is interesting and helpful and the website has a clear structure, users will naturally interact with it. But there are a few elements you can include that encourage the type of user signals search engines like.

These include:

  • Table of contents
  • ‣Jump links guiding through long texts
  • Image galleries
  • Downloads
  • Videos

… and many more. ‣Plugins are available for many of these elements, but if you can do it in HTML, that'd be even better because plugins tend to slow sites down.

Advice for existing websites

Applying SEO to an existing website that has been around for a while without using any of these techniques can be a lot of work, especially if you have to work on the internal structure and URLs. These tips can help:

Step-by-step adjustments

Before you start, imagine for a moment that you had to design the website from scratch again, then do keyword research as if building a new website. With your ideal structure in mind, adjust your existing website step by step, not all at once. If it can be avoided, and especially if your website is already ranking for some keywords, don't do a complete overhaul of your website. This might hurt your rankings and you'll have to rebuild all your credit. Small adjustments that lead to the same result, but over a certain amount of time don't have this negative effect, but instead count even as positive because it sends repeated signs that the website is up-to-date and well curated.

Get an overview

The tool Screaming Frog helps you gain an overview over all kinds of technical aspects of your website. It crawls your site and gives you data on which and how many URLs there are, how often they are linked and from where, where there are certain elements like ‣< h1 > or title and description missing and which URLs respond with 404 errors.

[[ Screaming Frog's free version includes basic functions that should be sufficient in most cases. ]]

Avoid mistakes

Important: Whenever you change a URL or delete a page, make sure to redirect it to a new URL (‣301 Redirect). This way, the old URL doesn't respond with a 404 error code, and you tranfer all the credit the old URL had with search engines to the new one. Always redirect to a URL that is similar or identical content-wise. If you're deleting a page where you don't have a content equivalent, redirect to the home page.

Many ‣content management systems have plugins for redirects. Wordpress users can use the plugin Redirection.


This is it for the practical part. There's a lot more, of course. Feedback and questions are always welcome! See Contact.