Washington: Type the word “impeachment” into Google, and odds are the first search result won’t offer a news report on the latest developments in Washington.
Instead, the topmost link on Monday was usually an ad from Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, with a broadside aimed at President Donald Trump: “Tweeting is not leading.”
Bloomberg got this prime internet real estate by purchasing a Google search ad off the word “impeachment.”
Buying keyword-based ads is a common tactic in modern presidential campaigning, using Google’s feature that allows advertisers to buy the top placement on results pages when users search for a particular word or phrase. The ads appear similar to regular search results, though they carry an “ad” label with a “paid for by” disclaimer underneath.
Campaigns have been utilising this strategy since at least the 2004 presidential campaign, often by purchasing ads for searches of their own candidate’s name, or for particular policies. But since he entered the race last month, Bloomberg has shown what a virtually bottomless advertising budget can do: buying his way into the hottest political conversations of the moment. (A search asking the question “Who can beat Trump?” returns ads for Bloomberg as well.)
“Google search ads is really just about meeting people exactly where they are with information that they’re looking for,” said Tara McGowan, the chief executive and founder of Acronym, a new Democratic super PAC that focuses on digital advertising. “Bloomberg, by spending a lot of money behind the word impeachment, is ensuring that what he wants people to see about impeachment hearings is what people see first when they search.”
The Bloomberg campaign is spending an immense amount of money on Google ads — $7.5 million (Dh27.5 million) over roughly three weeks, according to Google’s ad transparency report. The Trump campaign, for comparison, has spent $9.1 million over the course of the entire year.
Bloomberg’s online strategy mirrors his television strategy. He has already spent more than $100 million of his own money on television ads, breaking records and flooding broadcast markets across the country.
And his digital spending has continued his advertising dominance over his Democratic rivals. The next closest candidates, ranked by their advertising buys on Google, are Tom Steyer, who has spent $4.2 million, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has spent $4.1 million.
The Bloomberg campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Buying a word like “impeachment,” and landing as the first result, does not come cheaply. Google’s search advertising business functions as an auction, so the more popular a search term is, the more expensive the ad will be while the word is popular. For example, advertising under any iteration of the phrase “Super Bowl” will be exceptionally expensive on the day of the game, though relatively inexpensive in mid-July.
“I would think that, if you truly wanted to own impeachment as a search term, it would be hundreds of thousands of dollars per day,” said Ryan Meerstein, a managing partner at Targeted Victory, a Republican digital consulting firm.
Google’s transparency report does not include which words or phrases a campaign is advertising around, so it is impossible to know how much Bloomberg is spending on the impeachment ad, or where his campaign may be targeting the ad based on demographics or geography.
Other campaigns and political entities are running ads against the word “impeachment,” though not in the prized first-page position. Users clicking to the second page of search results would occasionally see an ad from the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, offering its opinion of impeachment as defined by the Constitution. On the third page Monday was an ad from Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a freshman Democrat who has been targeted by Republicans for her support of impeachment.
For political campaigns, Google ad searches are particularly effective at “acquisition,” the political operative’s term for either obtaining some type of personal contact information or, more important, luring in small-dollar donations. In this primary cycle, as Democratic candidates have had to acquire hundreds of thousands of individual donors to qualify for the debate stage, Google word-search ads have been particularly essential. (Bloomberg, however, has said he is not soliciting individual donations.)
They can also be an essential tool around particular moments in a campaign, such as a debate or some viral news cycle. Meerstein noted that political campaigns see a huge spike in search interest during the final weekend before a state primary.
“There is no other ad where someone is literally saying, ‘I am looking for this right this second,’ and we’re able to deliver them the message that they’re looking for,” he said.
A quick search shows that more than half of the current Democratic candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, are running Google search ads based on their names. Of course, there’s also the Google gamesmanship of candidates buying up one another’s names, so that a search for one reveals a donation page for another.
“If you don’t buy up your name as a candidate,” McGowan said, “Somebody else will.”