The Google political ad war
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:
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.