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The Google political ad war

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:33 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010

Is Labour losing a digital battle - the contest to get its message promoted alongside Google search results?

Yesterday, after asking Labour for examples of search terms they had bid for under the Google Adwords system, I put the words "david" and "cameron" into the search box. Out came this:

Google results page

So Labour comes top of the sponsored links, advertising a website which attacks the Conservative leader. Then comes a link to a Conservative video - and finally something a little less political: an advert for the Ann Summers lingerie shop. So Labour does appear to have bid more for "David Cameron" than have the Conservatives - with Ms Summers in third.

But a few hours later, I repeated the search. And this time there was just one sponsored link - to the same Conservative video. So what had happened in between? Perhaps the Labour money had run out - or the Conservatives had decided to outbid them for David Cameron? Whatever the reason, the Tories seem to be having far more effect in this particular campaign sport than their rivals. Their sponsored links are popping up on all sorts of searches; Labour's are very hard to spot.

Ah, but that's to miss the point, a Labour spokesman told me, insisting their aim was to concentrate on actual search results rather than sponsored links. He claimed his party is more skilful in making sure its various sites appear prominently in Google News results - which are, he said, far more important for those searching for information than the sponsored links.

The spokesman told me that Tories' strategy is to "carpet bomb" Google and hope to pick up some relevant traffic. Labour, he said, had less to spend, so had to work harder to to make its ads are really relevant to the audience.

A sideshow in this battle has been John Prescott's encouragement to Labour supporters to click on Tory ads, thereby costing the party money. One blogger has suggested that this amounts to incitement to fraud, but both Google and the Conservatives seem quite relaxed about it. The search firm says it's able to easily weed out these false clicks - and a Conservative spokesman told me it had actually helped them: "It does seem to have improved our quality score across loads of Labour searches, because of improved perceived relevancy."

So the battle of the search ads goes on - we'll probably have to wait until after the campaign for some political academic to work out whether it had any real effect on voters.


  • Comment number 1.

    Real voters don't use the internet....

    Only us wimps!

    Voting is visceral.

  • Comment number 2.

    Just did the same search myself. As usual, my eyes were firstly drawn to the main search result, not to the sponsored box on the right. I am not sure about anyone else, but I rarely even notice what is in that box.

    we have in order a betting site (that one is a paid for link), followed by news, a DC website and the Wikipedia link.

    Doing a search on Gordon Brown produces a similar set of results, though they are slightly confused by an estate agent with the same name.

    Interestingly enough, with both searches, the top sponsored result on the right is for the campaign for a referendum to change our voting system.

  • Comment number 3.

    I imagine if more companies take the Ann Summers approach then the sponsored results could change quite a bit in the next few weeks.

    “Visit Ann Summers & find out why we believe in a well hung parliament!”
    “We specialise in long, hard, Elections! Visit us online today.”

    Google ‘Labour Party’ and the current top sponsored result is from YouTube: webcameronuk.

    Bizarrely ‘liberal democrats’ brings only one sponsored result - for an Online Thai Supermarket!

    Google ‘election’ and you get results exclusively about the UK election (there are others going on. e.g. Sri Lanka.

    Google is tailoring search results according to country; even without using the ‘pages from the UK’ option.

  • Comment number 4.

    Nobody in their right mind voluntarily watches a party political broadcast, and nobody in their right mind will click-through to an internet version of one.
    Either this pointless lining of Google's pockets is for bragging rights and to garner column inches from the likes of you, or it's because they view the electorate as contemptible idiots. Come to think of it, it's probably both.
    The electorate in the UK is far more cynical about politics than that in the USA. Whilst there are no shortage of village idiots who will happily vote for change without ever questioning how change might affect them, you'll find practically no-one who will enthusiastically join a campaign believing their man is the new Messiah.
    People here, when they vote at all, do so wearily, picking what they consider the least bad candidate from the bunch of crooks, cheats and hypocrites presented to them. As politicians have abandoned belief in a political philosophy in favour of gaining and holding on to power, the electorate have lost any sense of belonging.
    Being best at internet advertising won't make the product any more palatable.

  • Comment number 5.

    I suspect most people are trying to forget there's 4 weeks of mind-boggling, boring, puerile electioneering ahead - not searching the internet for reminders of the misery. Caledonian Comment

  • Comment number 6.

    Google also raises ads that it thinks are more relevant, even if they bid a bit less. So it could just be that more people clicked on the Conservative ad, making it seem more relevant. Or of course the Conservatives could have upped their bidding as you suggest.

  • Comment number 7.

    Best sponsored link I have seen so far is when I search for Nick Clegg and get the Conservative "Fed up with Labour?" youtube/webcameron link!

  • Comment number 8.

    I've been trying to find a way of stating how little I care about such ******* electoral ******** [my own censoring], but have, so far, been unsuccessful.

    Might I suggest that the current lack of comments - and probably interest - on this blog is probably due to the fact that, despite it's supposed technological slant, it is more lacking in technological content than many other popular publications.

    "Vogue", for instance. Or maybe "Just 17".

  • Comment number 9.

    Most of these ads will disappear as they're not relevant to the search results. Also, bear in mind when searching for these ads as a journalist that Google will gradually filter out ads it finds are not relevant to you, if you search on the same term multiple times.

    To get "pure" unfiltered results, sign out of your Google account when making searches.

    All this is besides the point however. If this is how the parties think the "online world" works, they're stuck in the dark ages.

  • Comment number 10.

    Is Labour losing a digital battle - the contest to get its message promoted alongside Google search results?
    I don’t care.
    These are games, the kind of games that children play, like: “I got more ads than you did!”
    What does this have to do with solving the economiuc crisis, reducing the deficit, getting workers back to work, solving the housing problem…
    Actually, I might go with the party that spent less on advertising.
    I’m happy that the Conservatives have found a “sport” to occupy their time; of course, I’d be inclined not to play around at all when economic conditions are so bad.
    I’m not a fan of sponsored links; so, I’m pleased that Labour is not playing around with sponsored links.
    Tell me what sense is in this statement: The spokesman told me that Tories' strategy is to "carpet bomb" Google hoping to pick up some relevant traffic. This truly has the Tory flavour. Let’s “carpet bomb” and maybe, just maybe, we will hit a target and win this election.
    As for John Prescott's encouragement to Labour supporters to click on Tory ads, thereby costing the party money. My dear John, let’s not lower ourselves to the level of the opposition. Don’t forget, John, it’s taxpayer money that is being spent whether by Labour or the Tories, or did you think David Cameron was footing the bills himself?
    This sort of small-minded "Google" politics would have no effect on me – except (as you can tell) adversely.
    How do the Conservatives believe that this type of “Google” carpet bombing indicates a strong message for change on all the major issues. I’m not getting that focussed message; in fact, I’m getting fed-up trying to search for “Budget” and other important items and getting waylaid by Conservative game-playing.
    Labour one ups again! It uses advertising far less. It places ads highlighting government websites that will likely be of benefit to intelligent researchers and voters.

  • Comment number 11.

    With the right browser and the right extension, you need never see a sponsored link (AKA 'advert') on Google ever again. I've not seen one in years.

    But before Labour supporters take cheer, I should add that I'm web-savvy enough to know how to find the information I'm looking for online without blindly following the first result any search engine throws at me.

    Your Jedi mind tricks won't work on me, boys!

  • Comment number 12.

    I do not click on any link that I do not properly understand.

    The google links to the Tories or their front organisations have been appearing for years - it bored me rigid watching the 2008 US Presidential race to see "Do you like Gordon Brown" with a link to some site with a button already filled in as "no".

    I'm perfectly happy for Lord Ashcroft's money to be wasted in this way.

    (I hope this is not duplicated - there was a glitch.....)

  • Comment number 13.

    It's not tax payers money as it's illegal to use our money on party political adverts, that's why Labour have spent millions if not billions of our money over the last few moths with adverts promoting goverment services without actual mentioning the Labour party, you know the ones that a select commit said where a total waste of public money.


    I'm perfectly happy for the Unite unions money to be wasted in this way too.

    As for the Google adds have a Firefox add-on that strips out ALL Google adds from the search engine, this make who every spend money an them foolish. I suspect many others use the same sort of add blocker. Oh I use BING instead of Google now anyway.

  • Comment number 14.

    Note that as with search results, advertising results on google are also rated for quality/relevance/etc., it is not just purely who bids the most that gets the link in all cases. This is why bidding lots to try and pull in traffic from competitors names or similar search terms aren't particularly effective, as the target web page usually has no reference to the search term, so the relevance is downrated.

  • Comment number 15.

    I tried carrying out this search myself, but the adblock extension for Firefox and Chrome levels the playing field by completely blocking all unwanted ads. If more people became aware of browser features such as this, then perhaps the parties would be able to concentrate less on cheap, spitefully childish attacks and more on policies...

  • Comment number 16.

    Its a well known fact that here in the UK especially, the majority of people tend to avoid the sponsored results and click on the organic results instead. So, they are both wasting money which I might add the Tories especially are saying "we have to be responsible with money". This clearly shows, they aren't.
    One might also ask, how did Ann Summers come up in the search term David Cameron, when Google had supposed to have blocked that sort of 'spam' advertising a while ago. Double standards with the Tories and Google all round.

  • Comment number 17.

    I did the search an Ann Summers came out top. WIth the MarmiteNewsNetwork 3rd.



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