In Targeting Online Ads, Campaigns Ask: Who's Searching for What?

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

A day after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin winked playfully during the recent vice presidential debate, the number of people typing "palin wink" into the Google search engine surged, rising to No. 3 on the service's list of newly popular queries.

There, the phrase caught the attention of Eric Frenchman, an expert hired by the McCain-Palin campaign to develop online advertising.

"I might use it," said Frenchman, who describes himself as a "voracious" reader of Google search statistics.

Discovering how people search for candidate information -- exactly what words they type into a search box -- is a budding science that is paying big dividends in the presidential race between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

As never before, the campaigns are buying ads to run along with the results of specific search queries on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Live. Because the ads catch people just as they are searching for information and because they can be tailored to the users' immediate interest -- the phrases they type in -- both campaigns are spending millions on the method, which is relatively new in politics.

There is an art to choosing the keyword phrases for which to buy advertising -- among them are "water conserving faucets," "inheritance tax" and "fuel calculator." And it requires avid monitoring to keep up with evolving popular interests and campaign messages.

Many of the hundreds of keywords chosen by the campaigns for advertising are obvious -- simple variations of the candidates' names.

Others reveal what kinds of issues the campaigns are trying to engage voters on: "gas prices," "chavez" and "global warming" have been used, according to AdGooroo and SpyFu, firms that track search-term advertising.

But others stray far from policies: "Lipstick," "hanoi hilton," "obama muslim" and "hot wife" also have been purchased, according to the ad trackers.

Federal election records show that the Obama campaign has spent $5 million on Google, although some of that went for traditional display ads. The McCain campaign's ad expenditures are harder to track, but based on the volume of its online advertising, its tally reaches into the millions as well.

"The beautiful thing about search advertising is that it's people looking for information about you," Frenchman, of Connell Donatelli in Alexandria, said last week. "Right now I'm seeing 'palin wink' on Google Trends. I might use it. But first I would see what type of traffic is on it and what kind of discussion is around it. If I think it's positive, I would just dump it in with the rest of the words we're buying."

Anticipating the public's curiosity is a tricky business, however. To judge by the top political search terms, popular interests more often dwell on matters of personality, celebrity and gossip than on policy.

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