McCain vs. Obama: The Web Sites
Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have taken their campaigns online, big time.
Credit: www.johnmccain.com and www.barackobama.com.

Town hall meetings are important, but the presidential candidates have also campaigned more prominently on the Web this year than ever before.

How do the sites stack up?

A new study finds that Sen. Barack Obama's online social network of registered users is more than five times larger than Sen. John McCain's, according to each campaigns' calculations.

The research by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that while Obama showed a clear advantage online with interactive features that were more advanced, and more of them, for most of the campaign, in the last few weeks McCain's campaign has narrowed this Internet gap by adding features such as social networking.

Overall, the Obama site has attracted more users than McCain's site, according to figures posted this week on Hitwise, an Internet usage research company.

For the week ending Sept. 6, the Obama site attracted 56 percent of the online traffic to the two candidates' Web sites from a sample of 10 million U.S. Internet users.

Online election battle

The Pew researchers analyzed the two candidate's official sites in August and September, measuring several components, including engagement and participation of members, social networking, content and language used.

Some findings of the online review include:

  • Both candidates' Web sites include tools for user engagement, allowing users to register to vote and organize meetings with neighbors.
  • Obama's Web site makes it much easier for supporters to take action, while the McCain site offers only the more basic grassroots functions.
  • As of Sept. 9, Obama boasted 510,799 MySpace friends, compared with McCain's 87,652 such friends. That gives Obama a more than 5-to-1 lead in number of friends, down from a 7-to-1 advantage in August.
  • Obama also showed a lead on Facebook with 1,726,453 supporters to McCain's 309,591.
  • Obama's Web site has twice as many videos posted to his official YouTube channel and far more YouTube channel subscribers, by an 11-to-1 margin.
  • The word "change," which was part of the Obama campaign motto, is now less prominent on his site's information pages. On McCain's site, the word is now among the top 20 most frequently used words.
  • The leading term on both sites is the word "America," which includes "American" and "Americans."
  • The McCain campaign has fully integrated his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, into the Web site's home page, while the Obama home page displays his vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, much less prominently.

Flashy or not

In general, McCain's campaign Web site has fewer bells and whistles, with fewer videos and fewer social networking capabilities than Obama's. That difference could reveal something about the candidates' personalities and campaign strategies, according to another review of the candidates' Web sites.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the McCain design team realized that a flashy, Flash-driven site might alienate a group of voters looking for something simple and honest — an antidote to the slick, new media poster boy, Barack Obama," said Johanna Blakley, deputy director of The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, who headed up the latter review. "This old-school site design may be a calculated choice."

At the other extreme, Blakley said, the blue backdrop on Obama's site actually sparkles. "It's rare that a campaign Web site actually shimmers, so I suspect that this look and feel was meant to capture the 'glow' surrounding Obama's candidacy," Blakley said.

While Obama's site is all about social networking, Blakley found it difficult to access profiles and commentary from registered users on the site. "While I respect the effort to create a community around a candidacy," she said, "the coercive emphasis on raising money and donating time will probably turn many political novices off."