The national polls don't reflect it, but in one sense John McCain is the clear front runner in the presidential race: he leads in search-engine ads. When you type McCain's name into Google, alongside or above the standard search results you'll always get a text ad—a "sponsored link"—that leads you to a Web site soliciting campaign contributions for the Arizona senator. What happens when you type "Giuliani" into Google? You get a paid link to the former New York mayor's site. But you also get a McCain ad.
Pundits like to expound that we are in the middle of a YouTube election. But as some savvy political consultants have realized, this is really the beginning of the Google era of campaigning, where the battleground is the region of pixels alongside search results. Businesses already drop $7 billion a year in search ads, and politicians are finally figuring out that this vehicle is an ideal way to reach potential voters—and especially donors.
"It's still fairly new territory for candidates," says Peter Greenberger, who heads the political advertising team at Google. But a potentially rich one. "People spend as much time online as they do watching television," he says. Campaign TV commercials—either grim and grainy attacks on opponents or Pollyannaish portraits of a candidate and his or her Stepford family —are easily ignored (and often despised) by couch potatoes.
Search ads, on the other hand, appear when you are specifically looking for political information, since they are keyed to words that users type into a search field. Companies and candidates buy the actual words from the search company (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) in an auction-style process. Those with winning bids get their ads—a couple of lines of text and a link to the advertiser's Web site—posted alongside the search results for the word. (More than one advertiser can "own" a word at one time, but only the highest bidders can fit on the first page of results.) The bidding determines how much the advertiser pays each time a consumer clicks on the ad; nothing is charged until that "click-through" occurs, and when the specified number of clicks expires, the ad goes away. (A bonus for the advertiser: even if people don't click, the ad still makes a brief impression with the snippet of text that appears on the page.) Advertisers can even "geo-target" their messages to people in specific regions. Those who've figured it out are cleaning up: McCain's people have stated that for every dollar they spend on this form of advertising, they bring in three or four bucks in contributions.
After a slow start, candidates finally have begun exploiting this new medium. One sign that it's still early is that the bidding for the most crucial search terms—candidates' names and words that describe issues voters care about—hasn't reached cutthroat proportions. "Right now they're getting the words dirt-cheap," says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a think tank that helps Democrats. "It's amazing how many people don't buy their name and the name of their opponents. That's a no-brainer."
A quick look at what pops up by typing in the names of major candidates bears him out. Most candidates do place an ad that shows up when people type their names into Google or Yahoo. But only a few have realized that buying "competitive words"—meaning your opponents' names —can be even more effective. "It's a tactic, but not nefarious," says Eric Frenchman, a McCain consultant active in buying search terms. "Buying competitive words is a key to getting people information." Frenchman says that such ads often "convert"—meaning that a well-placed ad will get donations from people searching for a rival's name who really are supporters of someone else, willing to contribute at the spur of the moment.
The other obvious search words involve search terms people use when researching specific issues. Here again, McCain is busy; his people say that at various times they've bought 10,000 different words. But other candidates are active, too, sometimes appearing in surprising places. Who shows up when you type in "stop global warming"? Bill Richardson! Giuliani pops up with "flat tax" and "illegal immigrant." But when I tried "universal health care," nothing from any candidate came up. Vary it a little by typing "health care reform" and you get a paid link to … John McCain. (On the other hand, in my experience, typing in "Fred Thompson" often leads to sites selling authorized campaign merchandise, as if the politician-actor were running on eBay.)
As this medium evolves, you can expect dirty tricks like "click fraud," which is the practice of methodically clicking on an ad link to drain the advertiser's kitty. And then there's the question of negative search ads. The search companies have standards for ad content, but it's unclear how this is applied to political speech. Can you place an ad calling someone a crook? An adulterer? A liar?
Before we resolve those questions, the political action will likely spread to social networks, where advertisers can target users by their personal interests and political affiliation. "I can see targeting conservative Facebook users in South Carolina who have guns," says Republican political consultant David All. Next time around: the Facebook election.