With the expected emergence of online advertising as an effective new tool for 2008 campaigns, Google has created an "elections and issue advocacy" team that is helping customers -- namely candidates and the larger political industry -- pioneer ways to target voters more specifically than ever before. The team is headed by Peter Greenberger in D.C. NationalJournal.com's managing editor, Lucas Grindley, spoke with Greenberger about how candidates can get the most for their money and about what the future might hold. This is an edited transcript.
Q: What is your sales pitch? How are you convincing people that this is something they should be doing? Because for a lot of campaigns -- pretty much all of them -- this will be somewhat new.
Greenberger: Exactly. It is new. Basically, what we tell the campaigns is that the audience has shifted and people consume media in a different way today than they did six years ago or four years ago or even two years ago. They are spending more and more time online. In fact, people spend as much time online as they do watching TV. Yet campaign budgets are pretty much the same as they were in the '80s and '90s when the majority of your audience was reachable only through television or radio or print.
What we are doing is encouraging campaigns to invest a little bit of their ad budgets online to reach voters who are either actively looking for them -- and that's how we use search advertising -- or to reach voters when they are reading related material, and that's something we call contextual advertising. So if you are reading an article in a newspaper and it's about health care, then we can actually place your ad right alongside that article and your ad can be about your health care plan.
Q: I was talking to an online campaign adviser for Mitt Romney and she said that she got better return on ads in which people were searching for the candidate's name than for the more contextual things that you describe, maybe on an issue. Not to say it wasn't worth doing, but there was this better rate of return on names. Is that true?
Greenberger: Sure. Think about it: If you are actively looking for -- let's give you a nonpolitical example -- for pizza, and you do a Google search on "pizza," you are going to get a much higher rate of return if you are Domino's and you are buying the word "pizza" than if you are selling sandwiches, because it is not exactly what people are looking for. However, some of those people looking for pizza may also be hungry for a sandwich. Your rate of return may be slightly lower, but you're still capturing interested users....
I would agree with her that if you're searching for Mitt Romney, then the word "Mitt Romney" is going to have a greater return than the word "health care plan," because if I am searching for "Mitt Romney" I may or may not be interested in his health care plan. But it is an opportunity to bring that issue in front of an interested voter.
Q: Now all of the candidates have Web sites. The better ones will definitely be making an effort for search engine optimization. Hopefully, you type in "Romney" and your Web site comes up organically. So is it still worth buying ads even though your site is already represented in the free search results?
Greenberger: That's a great question, and the answer, of course, is yes. There's a few reasons why.
First of all, you can never control what's going to show up in the organic results. This is based on our algorithm, and hopefully it's returning what you are looking for -- the most relevant piece of information. However, there could be breaking news. In many cases, breaking news will top other search results. That news may be good or it may be bad. So it might be good to have your ad on the top or to the right to make sure you are controlling the message.
It also helps when you are looking for... an unbranded term. So if you are looking for, let's say, "gas prices," the Web site of a presidential candidate may not come up first. However, that right now is very relevant to Senators [Barack] Obama and [John] McCain. It might be a good chance to buy an ad to get that traffic.
Finally, it's important because we have data that shows if you appear on both organic results -- and that's what you're saying, in the white space, basically -- as well as in the advertising space, you are more likely to get a higher percentage of clicks. For some reason, when people see your name twice, when they see you both in organic and in paid, it becomes a more credible ad. It increases your clickthrough rates on both organic and paid.
Q: I have heard that from other SEO experts, as well.
Greenberger: There are a lot of reasons. And I can actually give you a fourth reason. Are you familiar with our content network? This is wherever you see "Ads by Google" across the Internet. Those ads are being syndicated from Google.com. If you are not buying an ad on Google.com, you are not being syndicated throughout that network.
Q: Are many of the candidates taking advantage of the AdSense network?
Greenberger: We call it the Google Content Network. But that's right: The Web sites that participate in it are part of the AdSense network.
Q: Are the candidates buying into that, or are they sticking to the search results that are on Google?
Greenberger: They are doing both, in many cases. In fact, advertisers... have to specifically opt out of the content network. Just about all of the campaigns generally opt in.
Q: Mitt Romney apparently had bought into an ad network, not the Google network, and an ad for Mitt Romney appeared on Gay.com, which set off a fury. Have you heard from a lot of people asking questions about how to make sure that doesn't happen to them?
Greenberger: We hear about that from our political advertisers, and our corporate advertisers, of course, have similar concerns.... That is why we are focused on making their ad campaigns very controllable.... We can do that by specifically excluding some sites. We can do it by including only a select number of sites that have been vetted and checked.
You can also do negative keywords. The example I always love to give is if you are in the airline industry and you want your ads to appear wherever there are articles talking about travel, you may not want your ads appearing next to articles that are talking about plane crashes or the fees that they are putting on your new blanket that you are trying to get. So there are ways to keep your ad from appearing next to content that you don't want to be next to.
Q: Getting back to the main search results, some candidates have been taking advantage of negative words. For example, Barack Obama was buying ads on Google for the keywords "Barack Obama Muslim" to dispel the myths. He's not doing that anymore. I wonder whether candidates have a strategy where they are trying to improve their organic results and then forgoing the paid results?
Greenberger: I can't comment on specific campaigns. But in general, you see the campaigns will very frequently and regularly change the keywords that they are buying, depending on what issues are the issues of the day and also depending on the results they're getting. Maybe they try a certain word or series of terms and they are not seeing great results, so they decide to pause those terms and they add new terms. We see that consistently. The McCain campaign has said publicly that they have used thousands of keywords, some they turn on and some that they turn off. My guess is that they will continue to experiment throughout the election.
Q: Do you offer some help in selecting keywords?
Greenberger: We do. We have a team... and that's exactly the reason for our existence. There is someone to call, because this can be confusing. We know it's new to political advertisers to a great extent, so we will help advertisers build out their keyword lists and help them optimize the campaign to make sure it's performing as well as possible.
Q: If you are in a situation where you have two opposing candidates or just lots of candidates around the country wanting to buy a keyword like "gas prices," would you advise them to try to outbid for the top search spots? Or is it OK to save some money and go down the list a bit?
Greenberger: That's a great question, and it really depends on the individual advertiser's objective and on their own metrics.... Politics is tricky, so let's say you are selling widgets. You know that you are willing to pay $2 per acquisition because your widgets cost $3 and you are making a buck a pop. You're not willing to pay more than $3. In order to win the top spot, you may determine that you need to bid $3.50. But you are getting a fine ROI [return on investment] being in the second spot or in the third spot and you are happy to remain there. So there might be situations where being first is not necessarily to your advantage.
Q: I am told by some people in campaigns that Yahoo is offering what they call "buckets" of users, and they are labeling them as Democrats or Republicans or likely Obama voters and that you could serve ads just to those groups. Is Google doing something similar?
Greenberger: Currently we are not doing that. The way that we help our advertisers target is through this idea of contextual targeting.... We also do it through placement targeting, which is very similar to demographic targeting. So I may not know you are a Democrat, but if you are reading Daily Kos and the Huffington Post -- left-of-center publications -- I can assume that many of those readers are left of center. That might be a good place for us to serve your pro-Democratic Party ad.
Q: Serve an ad when they are searching for Daily Kos?
Greenberger: Or when they are actually on the site, because it's part of our network. You are reading an article on Daily Kos, and to the right you see an ad asking you to contribute to a certain campaign. Of course, we can geo-target all of that. So if you are just interested in reaching those left-of-center folks in Oklahoma, we can make sure that only people reading Daily Kos in the state of Oklahoma are seeing that ad. That way you are having a very efficient, effective buy.
What some of these other guys are doing goes by a lot of names. It can be called behavioral targeting or interest targeting. That is something I believe, as a company, that we are looking at.... At present, though, we are focused on contextual, placement and geo-targeting.
Q: Behavioral targeting has had some controversy on Capitol Hill, anyway.
Greenberger: It's being discussed. It's being discussed in the marketplace and on the Hill. As you can imagine, this space is always evolving, so we are watching it.
Q: I just got the latest numbers from Nielsen Online about who is buying more impressions, Obama or McCain. According to them, Obama bought 1.15 million impressions in June, and McCain bought many more impressions across sponsored search networks. He bought 7 million total. Why do you think that disparity exists between the two campaigns, that one is spending so much more on sponsored search?
Greenberger: I would encourage you to speak with either of those campaigns... but to answer it with a generality... it really depends on the strategies of the campaigns. The online strategies today correspond directly to the more general strategy that the campaigns are engaged in.
Early in the cycle, campaigns were interested in gathering e-mail addresses and raising money from the base. You saw a lot of that sort of direct-response search advertising trying to sign people up to build your donor lists.
In this stage, you are seeing more of an effort at persuasion. Everybody knows there is a certain sliver... of the electorate that is undecided and that is looking for more information. Here is where I think you might see the campaigns interested in more impressions and maybe in more display advertising as opposed to search, because you are not looking for that active voter who maybe knows who he or she is voting for. But you are looking for more of that passive voter who is reading information but not quite ready to commit. And so I think you will see more display advertising based on that.
Then maybe in the final stage, I think in the GOTV or get-out-the-vote stage, you'll see campaigns go back to the direct-response model, with also display advertising, trying to drive everybody they can not just to the Web site but literally to the polls. Giving people information about where to vote, how to vote, where to register to vote, early voting. I think you'll see an explosion of that in the final month or weeks of the campaigns.
Q: Do you expect the number of impressions bought by the candidates to keep going up, or is this going to be basically how much they are spending each month?
Greenberger: It's very hard to predict. This team is kind of new, and this is our first presidential cycle. I expect, however, that as interest in the campaign grows among voters and users, that the campaigns will respond in kind and provide more advertising to reach those voters. People will be looking for information, and it's in the interest of both campaigns to make sure they find that information....
It's interesting to us because I think that we are seeing a trickle-down effect here, which happens, I think, every cycle. You remember that in '04 Howard Dean really lit the blogosphere and made blogs mainstream. Now everybody has a blog. I think, similarly, you are seeing this year the presidential candidates and some of the leading political advertisers using search and more advertising online. Now we are seeing more of the downballot races do the same thing. So we hope that we'll keep seeing it grow.
Candidates can get more information about advertising on Google by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.