Candidates' Web Sites Get to Know the Voters

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Any two people interested in whether Amanda Beard is dating fellow Olympian Michael Phelps, and who clicked on the Boston Herald tidbit that raced around the Web last week, got the same piece of gossip.

Rumored galpal Amanda Beard on Phelps: No Thanks!

What was different was the political ads that appeared -- or didn't -- beside the story.

Readers who had visited Barack Obama's Web site received as many as three Obama ads alongside the gossip. "Help Elect Barack Obama President of the United States" and "Visit the Barack Obama Website," the ads said.

Readers who hadn't visited his site didn't see a single Obama pitch.

How did the campaign know which readers to send ads to? Although both the Obama and John McCain campaigns are reluctant to discuss details, the ability to identify sympathetic voters based on their Internet habits, and then to target them with ads as they move across the Web, is one of the defining aspects of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Digital advertising networks and large Web companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft are using Web behavior -- which news articles people read, which blogs they visit or what search terms they enter -- to target voters who may be sympathetic to a certain cause. Using a method known as "sentiment detection," some companies even boast that they can tell whether the blog you go to is for or against the Iraq war.

"During a get-out-the-vote drive, you don't want to get out the wrong vote," said Diane Rinaldo, political advertising director at Yahoo, which has worked with both campaigns. With these techniques, the candidates "can reach who they want to reach without wasting their incredibly valuable media dollars, and reach them with the right message."

The advertising techniques, known as "behavioral targeting" and "retargeting," have raised alarms from some privacy advocates, who say no one should unwittingly have their political leanings analyzed as they use the Web, or be tracked for the delivery of political ads. Congress has begun looking into the use of such techniques for commercial advertisers.

"The Web has been hailed for creating new opportunities for political expression, but there is this dark underside to it," said Jeffrey Chester with the Center for Digital Democracy. "Yes, you can reach everyone -- but you can track, target and profile them as well, and none of this is disclosed."

Advocates of the practice, which is common in commercial marketing, say its use in the political world is comparable to traditional direct-mail campaign practices. Direct mail efforts, they note, combine voter registration and other records to identify targets. They then send tailored pitches to their homes.

By contrast, most of the online targeting is directed to a Web browser, and the name and home address of the target is unnecessary.

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