Why the campaigns should advertise in your search results.

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 13 2004 6:43 PM

Google for President

Why the campaigns should advertise in your search results.

Over the past two years, Internet fund raising has changed the way campaigns raise cash. But when it comes to how George W. Bush and John Kerry have been spending that money online, it might as well be 1996. A report issued by the Pew Internet and American Life project a few weeks ago revealed, unsurprisingly, that the campaigns have spent 100 times more money on TV commercials than Web ads. The more startling news was the kind of online ads they'd been purchasing: banners on media sites like Newsweek, SFGate.com, and, yes, Slate. The great bulk of these ads have all the nuance of a garish bumper sticker: a picture of the candidate; a little red, white, and blue; and the usual banal slogan about building a better America.

If there are any campaign advisers reading this, I've got an insider tip: There's this hot new company called Google. The search engine has made quite a bit of money by selling little text ads that are targeted to specific search requests. If you're selling wool underwear, for instance, you can tell Google to limit your ad exclusively to people who have typed "wool underwear" as their search query. Instead of casting a huge net and hoping against hope that you catch a few people who might be interested in wool underwear, you can filter out all the cotton-underwear shoppers out there, not to mention all the people who aren't interested in underwear at all.

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For at least a year now, this targeted keyword model (called AdWords, in Google's parlance) is all anybody has been talking about in the online ad world. So, why are the campaigns running banners that look like they should be on the Netscape "What's Cool" page? Perhaps consultants have ignored AdWords because a search for John Kerry or George Bush already delivers you to the campaign Web sites via Google's traditional non-advertising search results. Why pay when you're already getting the promotion for free? But the campaigns shouldn't just be trying to lure people who want to learn more about their candidate. They should be using Google to attract people who are searching for information about themselves.

Politicians must be driven by two big-picture concerns: finding out what voters want and tailoring their message to respond to those needs. The old-fashioned approach to political advertising is to interrupt someone who's doing what they want in the hope that this interruption makes some kind of positive impression. Someone watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns in Cleveland probably isn't doing so to make a more informed decision in November, even if the commercial breaks are full of campaign ads.

On the other hand, a Web surfer who types "stem-cell research" into Google is, by definition, interested in learning more about stem-cell research. The Kerry campaign already has a page devoted exclusively to the candidate's embrace of stem-cell research—why not put that page in front of anyone and everyone who queries Google on the topic? Right now, someone who types in "stem-cell research" has to wade through 23 results (and three pages) to get to Kerry's site. Because the AdWords program uses a cost-per-click model, the campaign would even be getting a secondary audience filter: not just people interested in stem-cell research, but people interested in Kerry's position on the issue. (The cost of an AdWords term varies dramatically based on the popularity of the word or phrase, but let's assume, for a back-of-the-envelope calculation, that each click costs a dollar. An extended ad buy, delivering a million interested voters to information that they themselves have sought out, would cost less than 1 percent of a campaign's overall media budget.)

The possibilities for this kind of targeted advertising are endless. Want to refine your search by class and region? Buy "employment Ohio" and "hurricane relief." Want to go after swing voters? How about buying, say, "swing voters"? A bit of research suggests that both "soccer mom" and "security mom" are wide open, as is "global test." Google apparently has a policy that bans ads that include "language that advocates against an individual, group or organization"—so attack ads won't fly. But the Google advertising department assured me that the kind of issue ads we're talking about here wouldn't violate their standard guidelines.

One final word of advice for the consultants: Whatever you do, don't direct people to the front door of your campaign Web sites. Someone looking for information on global warming wants to go straight to a page on global warming. If they wanted to hear about building a safer world and a more hopeful America, they could just stick with Everybody Loves Raymond.

Steven Johnson is the author of five books, including Everything Bad Is Good For You andThe Ghost Map, and co-founder of Outside.in.