Campaigning enters the Internet Age

A brave new world has arrived when presidential candidates tout Web sites in nomination acceptance addresses. Invoking "The future is now!" vibe, Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told his July 29 convention audience to do "something that Franklin Roosevelt could never have said in his acceptance speech: Go to JohnKerry.com."

And the plug worked. In the hour block during which Kerry delivered his speech, his campaign Web site drew approximately 50,000 visitors — far exceeding the average of 40,000 visitors per day in June, according to comScore Networks Inc., an online behavior-tracking firm. President Bush's official re-election site saw increased traffic as well, drawing approximately 30,000 visitors during Kerry's acceptance speech.

But with power comes responsibility. Now that Web sites permeate presidential elections from upstart primary candidates to the incumbent, how do they stack up? Federal Computer Week asked experts to grade Bush's and Kerry's Web presences on four criteria: content, accessibility, usability and privacy.

Content: Kerry goes deep

It is mainly supporters who visit campaign Web sites, according to Internet experts. But politicians shouldn't think they're merely preaching to a converted choir.

Web-savvy supporters often "need arguments to fill in the blanks when they're talking with other people," according to Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. Web surfers "tend to proselytize to others" and often guide their peers' opinions, she said.

JohnKerry.com wins the depth and breadth contest, according to Kristin Foot, an assistant professor of political science and communications at the University of Washington. The Democrat's site offers 15 issue links, compared to the seven on the Republican's home page. Both sides are careful to layer detail on stances, beginning with general briefing points that lead into progressively deeper explanations. But Kerry offers multipage white papers on many of the issues his site addresses, such as the Kerry/

Edwards budget framework, without similarly detailed documents being posted on the Bush site, Foot said.

Because it's the supporters who visit the sites, one key measure of the campaigns online content is how effective they are at mobilizing supporters into becoming advocates.

Bush's "get active" page lists possible citizen actions — "Write News Editors," "Call Talk Radio," among others — and is open to anyone. Admission to Kerry's volunteer page requires a log-in, "which means the campaign can track who accesses and uses them," Foot said.

Both sites have campaign blogs, said Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "The Kerry blog features comments, the Bush blog does not, although it excerpts chat events," he added.

Both blogs are deep in the background, but that makes sense, Cornfield said. "If you're not running a [Howard] Dean-style grass-roots campaign, (which neither is), there's little value to a blog."

Accessibility: No clear winner

Neither candidate's Web site received great marks for compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that technology be accessible to people with disabilities. But, of the two, JohnKerry.com "demonstrated a markedly higher level of compliance across all pages tested," according to SSB Technologies Inc. officials, who used evaluation software to grade five high-traffic pages from each site.

Officials said Kerry's site had "extensive use of alternative text" to label visual elements so they can be read by screen readers. Bush's site, in contrast, features "minimal and occasionally improper use" of alternative text, according to SSB officials.

Neither site provided synchronized text crawling underneath video links, although "Kerry's site had a couple of transcripts in spot places," said Tim Springer, SSB president and chief executive officer. "We

didn't see any on the Bush site." Inaccessible electronic forms were another major deficiency on both candidates' sites. Two blind users contacted by Federal Computer Week noted that on Kerry's volunteer page, the tab key jumps from frame to frame land users in unlabeled blank boxes. But the money donation form "is quite well done and is accessible," said Seville Allen, vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia.

On the Bush site, "some of the drop lists I tried are not usable," said Steven Johnson, a disability navigator for Wisconsin, "and when there are many choices to choose from, I cannot scroll through the list to choose the area I would like to look at further."

Usability: Kerry keeps it clean

GeorgeWBush.com struck every usability observer as the busier of the two sites. "It's busy and it's dense," said Christine Williams, a Bentley College government professor. "Bush's Web site flashes at you. He's got different pictures and scrolling stuff. For me, that's a distracter."

"Too much coming at you at once," Cornfield said.

On Kerry's home page, issue links are canonically listed along the left side of the screen, and the Bush issue positions are organized by seven tabs near the top, "which leads to more clutter," he said.

Kerry's site calls for three basic actions: volunteer, contribute and recruit, observers agreed. JohnKerry.com wants viewers to do "action things," whereas "Bush is touting his television campaign," Williams said.

Both sites have internal search engines, although with different results. Type "endorsement" into JohnKerry.com and a list of press releases touting political supporters will appear. The same word typed in GeorgeWBush.com loaded Bush's latest commercial.

"I'd give the edge on usability to the Kerry campaign," Cornfield said.

Privacy: Clearly on the agenda

The privacy policies of the presidential contenders' sites have improved from four years ago, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

If anything, Kerry's site "is really going to an extreme," having the TRUSTe seal and participating in the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc.'s BBBOnLine privacy program. "Usually, people have one or the other," he said.

Kerry's site does not distribute personal information to other Democratic candidates, parties and allied organizations unless "and only if you give your consent on our volunteer form." Bush's site has no opt-out. "If you give your information, they may share it with another Republican organization," Schwartz said.

On cookies, both sides "have precluded themselves about being able to sell information about Web site usage," Schwartz said. JohnKerry.com allows users to disable cookies by deselecting the "Remember Me" box.

Still, Kerry's site, unlike Bush's, does not indicate what it will do with the donor information on those who give under the $200 threshold that triggers a Federal Election Commission reporting requirement. GeorgeWBush.com makes it clear that anyone who donates a dollar or more will have their information posted.

One line from Bush's privacy policy got the alarm bells ringing for Foot, however. "We reserve the right to revise or update this privacy policy at any time," the Republican's Web disclaimer says.

"People who are submitting personal information early in the campaign under one set of expectations are not being guaranteed in terms of what will happen with their information at the end of the campaign," Foot said. "In my mind, it nullifies the policy."

Kerry's site allays such fears by committing to "abide by the practices described in this statement at the time you provided us with your information," even if the privacy policy is rewritten later.

RELATEDLINKS

2014 Rising Star Awards

Help us find the next generation of leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above