Searching for ad lessons from the campaigns

Google ads are just Adwordsthe latest front in the escalating online war fought between the campaigns this election season. While adwords were still maturing last cycle, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how they’ve evolved in an era of search engine marketing consultants and near ubiquity of online advertising.

First, the ground rules: last month, Google posted on their policy blog about their guidelines for political ads:

  • Editorial Guidelines. Like all AdWords ads, political ads must follow our editorial and content policies (including our trademark policies)…

  • Fairness. We permit political advertisements regardless of the political views they represent, and apply our policies equally…
  • No attacks on an individual’s personal life. Stating disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate[...] is generally permissible. However, political ads must not include accusations or attacks relating to an individual’s personal life, nor can they advocate against a protected group.
  • Donations. If you’re soliciting political donations, your ad’s landing page must clearly state that the donations are non-tax-deductible.
  • No misleading ads. As with all AdWords advertisements, political ads should not mislead users.

These policies seem remarkable even-minded and fair, as people have come to expect from Google. With these guidelines in mind, follow me below the fold for an analysis of the search engine marketing strategies of the 2008 presidential campaigns…

One intriguing aspectNotice the disclaimer in Hillary's ad of this whole discussion is how political campaigns can advertise on AdWords without the required disclaimer. In particular, federal candidates are required to indicate who’s paying for an ad. While there are exceptions for swag that isn’t really an advertisement, particularly where it’s burdensome to try to fit the disclaimer on there (think buttons or lapel stickers), there is no such exception for online advertising – the FEC just hasn’t caught up yet.

I know this because we investigated the question several times when I was at the Feingold campaign – every time, we came to the conclusion that adwords were out, due to our inability to get "Authorized and Paid for by the Progressive Patriots Fund, Daniel D. Hannula, Treasurer" into the 70 character limit for an ad and still have room for content. The rules are a lot tougher when your candidate’s name is the bill that created them (or at least you’d think so).

But that hasn’t stopped other campaigns – a quick google shows that all the candidates still in the race (except for Mike Gravel and Ron Paul) have adwords pointing to their sites, with only Clinton’s ads including any sort of disclaimer. While it’s possible that someone else may be funding these ads, that’s just the sort of thing that the law is there to prevent, so hopefully we’ll see the FEC come down on this relatively unexplored territory this cycle.

Looking at the ads themselves, A Huckabee ad - Huckabee is bold because it's the search term the candidates seem to be doing a good job of varying their content to test what’s most effective. A few quick refreshes show that all four candidates running ads are mixing up links to the homepage, signup pages, and donation pages, with some links to interior pages used in some ads as well. I’m assuming that they’re in the testing phase, and would love to see their results someday.

The copy is generally effective – I tried a couple variations, and the ads did a pretty good job of adapting to bold as much as possible (your search terms are always bolded, so smart ad copy will include them in the ad itself). It used active verbs and made it clear that this was an ad for the mothership, not a supporter community.

One thing that intrigued me was the use of ads to head off negatives that people might be searching for. When I searched for "Barack Obama Muslim" to see what people who fall for email hoaxes get, I was presented with this ad:

Barack Obama Muslim Myth

Smart move by Obama’s team. No such results for other candidate memes, at least from searches on "John McCain Old" or "Mike Huckabee Evolution" (I couldn’t think of one for Hillary – feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.).

Interestingly, after about a half-hour of search and refresh, I wondered just how big these buys were. At the time I was researching ads, it was already 7:00 pm, so the ads should be running out of money, but not one candidate at was appearing below first place, or in the yellow area above the search results. Given that the candidates need to be using real money for these ads, as opposed to Google Grants "Monopoly money," and given the demand for these particular searches right now, I was surprised to see the candidates beating out the commercial advertisers. This, of course, made me even more suspicious that they were being funded by a third party, since they didn’t have disclaimers. It’s not unprecedented this cycle: look at the Ron Paul blimp!

Lastly, I was a little surprised that no one was advertising on each other’s name. While the guidelines above say that DMI Ad for McCainyou can’t have an ad that says "Barack Obama" and goes to, they doesn’t seem to prohibit bidding on your opponents’ keywords, a practice that was common last cycle. I would think that Huckabee would want to run ads on searches for "McCain Conservative" that say "Looking for real conservative alternative to McCain? Check out Mike Huckbee! Or Chuck Norris will beat you up…" and the like. But maybe these were running earlier in the day and the money just ran out on them.

While the candidates aren’t advertising on each others’ names, that doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones there – among the other advertisers trying to use the Presidential candidates to get traffic are AOL News, various swag sites, and the internet’s lowest common denominator, But some savvy non-profits are also getting in on the adwords – I noticed ads for Project Vote Smart and Drum Major Institute among the search results, linking to pages that rate the candidate on their issues.

Search Engine Marketing, like the rest of the internet, has grown a lot in the four years since the last presidential election – it’s good to see the campaigns have grown with it. What else could the campaigns have done better from an SEM standpoint? Share your thoughts in the comments below…

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