If you Googled “stimulus” earlier this month, you probably stumbled upon a collection of ads blasting the Democrats’ economic recovery plan.
Search the phrase “card check” and Google turns up labor union ads backing the controversial Employee Free Choice Act. The “Roy Blunt” Google search, meanwhile, sends you straight to a sponsored link for the Missouri Republican’s new Senate campaign.
This isn’t an accident.
Campaigns and other political organizations are finally getting Google-savvy, latching onto an advertising tool that most companies have been using for years. The campaigns are using targeted search terms — acquired in Google auctions — to put their message in front of interested online readers in hopes of influencing the political debate outside traditional media and advertising outlets.
The stimulus debate offers a case study in how special interests push their spin on Google to reach people who care about the topic of the day in Washington.
“Savvy political marketers are looking at this as a way to build their base,” said Peter Greenberger, who helms Google’s elections and issues team in Washington, D.C. “The stimulus was the perfect example of this.”
FreedomWorks, an anti-tax group that crusades against government expansion, pegged a series of online campaigns to words like “stimulus” or “stimulus package” the week of the big vote. These include an online petition against the plan, a campaign to call congressional offices and an ad campaign criticizing conservative Blue Dog Democrats who voted for the bill.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner also used targeted searches to highlight a GOP alternative to the Democrats’ stimulus bill. His political action committee, the Freedom Project, sponsored links to popular search terms to spread the Republican message online.
“It’s very user-friendly and very effective,” said Don Seymour, a spokesman for the Freedom Project. “The beauty of this is that you can change the campaign on the fly.”
The GOP alternative is one of three campaigns Boehner’s Freedom Project has pegged to Google search terms this year. The first was an online petition opposing the release of the second $350 billion of a Wall Street bailout. The last protested the Democrats’ decision not to post the stimulus online for 48 hours, as they had promised.
Companies have employed this advertising strategy for years as a business tool, but they have also lagged in using Google as a tool to influence voters.
Automakers, for example, have used Google advertising for quite some time to market their cars online. But the auto giants have been less aggressive about taking their case to voters online until last fall, when the automakers used targeted searches to make the case for what became $17.4 billion in federal loans.
“They are very savvy marketers about selling cars,” Greenberger said. “They have not done as much on the issues game.”
Google started building its political market in 2007 in the early stages of the presidential campaign. Greenberger and his team set out to give the presidential campaigns a vehicle to target potential voters, donors and volunteers. The Google staff also helped the campaigns tailor online searches to target the most sympathetic audience.
Of all the 2008 hopefuls, Barack Obama and John McCain were the most committed to reaching voters through online search words, Greenberger said. Even in the summer of 2007, after his campaign imploded and most observers wrote McCain off, his team maintained an aggressive collection of key words to connect McCain’s message with voters.
But with the election concluded, Google is now helping political organizations, from individual campaigns to massive member groups, target an online audience for a host of issues, ranging from the stimulus to the 2010 congressional races.
Anti-immigration groups have effectively used search terms for the past two years, and former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich recently used this method to build opposition to a federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s political action committee is using her fame to raise money online from anyone who Googles her name.
“Campaigns are starting search-word advertising earlier than ever,” Greenberger said. “We’re seeing more and more of it, and I expect we’ll see this around all the big legislative issues.”
The union-backed Employee Free Choice Act will be another test case for how advocacy groups compete for Google dominance. Type “card check” into Google’s search engine, and you’ll get an SEIU ad backing the measure to ease organizing requirements for labor unions. The links direct readers to freechoice.seiu.org, and the tease reads, “Find out how to rebuild the middle class with good union jobs.”
Using search terms also gives political operators greater flexibility to tailor their campaigns on specific issues or in particular geographic regions.
“Unlike print or radio or TV, if something changes, we can change it on the fly,” said Thomas Keeley, the online marketing coordinate at FreedomWorks.
Case in point: Keeley’s group crafted 49 separate ads targeting Blue Dog Democrats, creating a geographic region for each Google search and separate text catered to each lawmaker and district. If one of those members switched his or her votes, the group could immediately change a critical ad to a “thank you,” or vice versa.
Google also has technical tools that allow groups to watch Web traffic to determine what works and what doesn’t.
In the current model, advertisers pay for each click that generates traffic to their sites, so it only gets expensive if the campaign is successful. And since Google prices the advertising through an auction model, the groups pay a market rate for each click.
Google also pulled a long-standing prohibition on advertisers directly referring to the competition, so politicians and other special interest groups can now bash each other in Google advertising. The only limitation is that political organizations can’t use trademarked names, images or slogans in their ads. Even Google uses this tool to get the message out about company priorities.
“Sometimes Google will use Google to get the message out,” Greenberger said, “and sometimes our opponents use it to get the message across.”