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Election Day Paid Search Comparison: How do Obama and McCain Rate?

By Justin Seibert| 8 Min Read | November 4, 2008

Don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s some sort of election thing going on today.  Apparently one of the things you can vote on is President of the United States of America, which sounds like an important post.

With that, let’s take a fairly extensive look into what the candidates are doing today in their paid search campaigns, shall we?

Before we go any further, check out Manny Marrero’s (aka Steaprok)’s excellent post on online marketing throughout this election season (hat tip: Brett D. Payne).  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.

Update: Also check the very bottom of this post for a list of articles related to internet marketing and the 2008 Presidential election.  I’ll update as I find them.

It’s a very thorough post on how both John McCain and Barack Obama have implemented internet marketing strategies and where each is strongest and weakest.  Pertinent to this post are the following:

  • Going back to February 2007, the candidates had already spent well over $7 million in online advertising by September, not counting search.  Let’s overestimate what they probably spent and say the total figure with search is $9 million.  Pretty impressive, except that $9 million would represent only about 3% of their overall ad spending.  Problem is, US advertisers in general spend about 7% of their budget online.
  • Update: Borrell Associates pegs the 2008 political advertising pie slice devoted to online marketing at only 1% (although that’s for everyone, not just the Presidential candidates).
  • Both candidates are using some paid search best practices, including using multiple ad copies and landing pages specific to their keywords.
  • McCain is spending a lot more and generally doing better on the pay per click side (even on Obama-related terms); Obama much better on the natural listings / seo side.
  • Search volume is heavier for keywords with “Obama,” but many of those searches are not necessarily pro-Obama searches (the 4th most searched for term, for example is “Barack Obama birth certificate.”

Paid Search Political Advertising on Election Day

With that background, let’s take a look at today’s paid search landscape (methodology / ranking system at bottom – it’s a doozy!)*.  Keep in mind that this is a snapshot and not necessarily indicative of the candidates’ paid search campaigns over the last few months.  But if you’re not going full bore today for whatever reason and running til the coffers are empty, I have no sympathy for you.

So let’s go.  By coin flip (seriously, we did one), Obama’s up first:

How Obama Ranks for Paid Search Marketing

Anti-Obama Search Terms: 19.5

– Barack Obama birth certificate
– Bill Ayres and Barack Obama
– is Barack Obama Muslim

McCain-Neutral Search Terms: 5
– John McCain
– all about John McCain
– John McCain’s views

Anti-McCain Search Terms: 1.5
– McCain old man
– McCain Bush
– McCain oil

Issues Pro-Obama Search Terms: 0
– Iraq war end
– affordable health care
– alternative energy

Issues Pro-McCain Search Terms: 0
– spread the wealth
– government spending
– offshore drilling

Deductions: -3
For not keeping budgets high enough on election day.  See Methodology #11

Total Paid Search Score for Barack Obama: 23

Of special interest: The DNC did a pretty nice ad / landing page / campaign just for Pennsylvania – thought it was a nice way to show “politics is local.”  Only saw it one place for Obama and nowhere for McCain.  Also, Obama does some really great Fight the Smears advertising – goes to the same Web site (well, subdomain now) that I wrote about before.  In this area, he does a really great job of matching up keyword, landing page, and ad text.

How McCain Ranks for Paid Search Marketing

Anti-McCain Search Terms: 10.5

– McCain old man
– McCain Bush
– McCain oil

Obama-Neutral Search Terms: 14
– Barack Obama
– Barack Obama biography
– facts about Barack Obama

Anti-Obama Search Terms: 5.5
– Barack Obama birth certificate
– Bill Ayres and Barack Obama
– is Barack Obama Muslim

Issues Pro-McCain Search Terms: 10.5
– spread the wealth
– government spending
– offshore drilling

Issues Pro-Obama Search Terms: 4.5
– Iraq war end
– affordable health care
– alternative energy

Deductions: 0

Total Paid Search Score for John McCain:45

Of special interest: McCain seems to run a much more robust campaign, especially on Microsoft adCenter and especially on terms related to his opponent.  Obama is not invisible, but very hard to find on terms related to McCain, generally.

And 2008 Presidential Winner is…

John McCain by a score of 45 to 23. Now go out there and vote if you haven’t already!

I’ll go ahead and put a wager out that these numbers will be much higher on both sides in 2012.  Any takers?

And a final note – boy is Yahoo! the biggest loser in this race.  I didn’t see any official McCain advertising and very little by Obama / related groups or the GOP.

* Methodology

I wouldn’t get an A in my sociology courses (yes, I graduated from Vanderbilt University with the ‘athlete’s degree’) for experimentation, but this isn’t exactly flying by the seat of my pants either.  Here’s my madness’ method:

  1. I’m in West Virginia, although sometimes my ip address gets read as Ohio (here’s Wheeling on a map – an hour from Pittsburgh, it’s situated across the river from OH and 15 minutes from PA).  Most pundits think West Virginia is not in play, so I’m going to trick Google AdWords into thinking I’m from Pennsylvania for my searches.  If the candidates are doing any geo-targeting, surely they’re putting dollars there.
  2. For Obama, I’ll pick three terms that seem anti-Obama, McCain-neutral, anti-McCain, issues based (pro-Obama) and issues based (pro-McCain).  Then I’ll do the equivalent for McCain.
  3. If you disagree with the issues based terms I have, let me know.  I’d love to know what I should have used.  Just don’t accuse me of being for one side or the other – I tried to pick stuff that was highlighted by the candidate or his opponent in debates and advertising.  Obviously some of these could have been put on the other side or not selected at all.
  4. A case could be made that it’s inappropriate for candidates to advertise on certain (but not all) anti-opponent terms like “is Barack Obama Muslim” and “McCain old man”.  Because of that, I’m devaluing their listings by 50% of whatever the normal total would be.
  5. Not doing any positive terms for either candidate or any neutral terms for that candidate.  Why?  They may still be advertising on those terms, but that seems like wasted money to me so I’m not going to knock a guy for not advertising on them.  That approach was more appropriate during the primaries.
  6. Will rate each candidate on the following:
    • 1 point for having a listing in each of the three major search engines (extra point if #1, extra half-point if #2 or #3)
    • 1 point for having ad text related to the term (may deduct or add half a point at my discretion depending on keyword insertion tool usage and manual ad copy)
    • 1 point for a landing page specific to the keyword
    • Bonus points available for useful features on a landing page such as voting booth locations, ability to donate, etc.
  7. I’m checking all three major search engines for ad listings, but not going to go through and check each one’s ad copy, destination urls, etc.  That’s just too much time.  So I’ll only use Google AdWords for the digging deeper parts of the point scale.
  8. No bonus points for having multiple sites listed, and for the purposes of this report, a site that either the party or another clearly pro-candidate entity puts out will count for that candidate.
  9. The results are probably a little skewed by the fact that someone might be doing a broad match and show up for all keywords that contain a candidate’s name, but A. the candidates should probably be doing this anyway, so shame on them if they’re not, and B. I’m hoping this gets tempered somewhat by whether they took the time to do related ad copy and landing pages.
  10. Would like to rank based on testing and some other pay per click best practices, but the campaigns didn’t give me their passwords to dive in and check.
  11. I only made one manual adjustment and that was deducting 3 points from Barack’s overall score.  The reason is that his ads were showing up only part of the time.  I know that could do some with how Google displays searches to me specifically, but my experience leads me to believe it’s more to do with how their budgets are set.  Not running full steam on election day merits a deduction.
  12. Tried very hard not to do double dipping, e.g. giving bonus points out for the same landing page used for different terms.

That’s it.  Let me know what I missed or give any feedback below.


Full-Scope Online Marketing Services | justin-seibert-headshot

Written by Justin Seibert

Justin Seibert is the President of Direct Online Marketing. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University. He contributes a wide range of online business-oriented topics, including the subject of exporting. His contributions can be found on publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times, AdAge, SES Magazine, and La Voz del interior. Justin and his family enjoy learning about new cultures during their travels.

View Justin Seibert's Full Bio

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