How Google and I Already Elect Your Congressman, Senator, President

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Political influence is an oligopoly dominated by mass media. Since Johannes Gutenberg stuck some moveable type to an old sewing machine some 600 years ago, a single channel could be used to affordably and easily reach the masses. The soap box and megaphone struggled to compete.

Media have evolved a great deal since the 1400s—a glimpse of YouTube would melt Johnny G’s mind—but our politics are still dominated by an information oligopoly, and it continues to consolidate. Consider Time Warner, which owns CNN, CNN.com, Warner Brothers Entertainment, HBO, TBS, DC Comics, Bleacher Report, and several dozen other media outlets. That boardroom’s voice carries.

Few organizations, however, have a reach comparable to Google. That raises two questions. First, is Google a media company? Yes. Don’t even wrestle with it. The answer is yes. Even without YouTube or Google Play, the modern search results are flooded with media.

Structured markup in Google for Taylor Swift singles

The query “taylor swift singles” generates search results that include music videos for her top tracks, channels with music, a list of her social media, and a news box with recent articles about her. Did you know Russell Westbrook likes her new stuff?!

Second question: Can Google influence political elections?

Politico seems to think so. In an interesting article, that is (slightly) less paranoid than it sounds, a contributor outlines three ways that Google could heavily influence the 2016 presidential election. The article’s first scenario is corporate corruption, or choosing the best candidate for the company. The second accuses a rogue employee of tampering with the algorithm. The third is essentially an algorithmic accident that promotes a lucky presidential hopeful.

Could Google sway an election? Perhaps easier than any other corporation in world. Facebook has 1.4 billion active users, but Google has the added influence of intent. To Facebook’s chagrin, people don’t actively use the platform to fulfill consumer needs. Promoted posts and banner ads provide (amazing) opportunities for passive consumption. “Red Bull has a new flavor? I should definitely try that!”

But Google is an active answer engine. Users take their questions to Google about 3 billion times per day for an array of needs, both transactional and informational.

Some are less critical to health and wellbeing of American democracy, like queries about the state of Donald Trump’s hair. Others are more substantial.

Top 2016 presidential hopefuls

 

These are the search results for “top 2016 presidential candidates” on both desktop and smartphone where Google’s Knowledge Graph answers questions in the search results. This is a big deal for a few reasons.

  • Google has made itself editor rather than provide 10 blue links to other editors.
  • Google (inadvertently) crowned the top presidential candidate as Lincoln Chafee, a little-known Rhode Island governor trailing by a huge margin in the polls. There’s a teenager in Iowa polling way ahead of this guy.
  • It has seven Democrats and one Independent. I imagine there are a few red states somewhere that would disagree with that short list.

It’s time to shift the conversation. Politico, WIRED, SEJ and Dave Egger’s dystopian soon-to-be-movie about a tech giant dominating politics all focus on what Google could do to influence democracies. Google’s search and advertising tools are specifically designed to increase awareness and drive conversions – goals that are just as applicable to your ecommerce widget site as they as are to a politician’s election run.

How I’d Use Google to Sway Your Vote

Our team had some fun brainstorming these ideas. A special shout-out to Michael Bartholow, whose unmatched search marketing prowess fueled much of this list. My only request to you, the reader: please use these for good rather than evil.

Owing Your Brand

Brands are a fundamental part of politics. Strong brands win elections while weak brands become a pundit punch line. For Google, a branded query is a search that involves a name. A branded query for me would be “Andrew Garberson shoe size.” (It’s 10 in case you’re wondering.) “Donald Trump hair” is also branded. As is “donate to Hillary Clinton.”

Google search results for Santorum

“Santorum” is a valuable reminder of how a brand asset can become a liability. It should also remind us how important it is to control your brand so your-domain.com is at the top of the search results instead of several pages that you would not like your mother to see. Perhaps we can find a more favorable example of branding in the search results.

Senator Pat Tooney using branded ads in the search results

Bravo, Mr. Toomey. This guy has a built-out Knowledge Graph with neutral photos and links to (owned!) social media. He also uses AdWords to own the top spot in the search results for his name. Even if Urban Dictionary turns “toomey” into something R-rated, he ensures that the top spot is a link to strategic reelection website. Gold star, buddy. You’re a little closer to winning my vote.

Local SEO

Positioning a candidate for branded search queries is (relatively) easy. What about non-branded informational queries used to learn more about candidates and potentially influence an undecided voter? This local incumbent is able to own most of the search results for “Pittsburgh congressman” by using his campaign headquarters to trigger the local box.

Local SEO for congressman

Similar to branded search strategy, the goal is to control as much space as possible, pushing an adversary down and off the screen. I can imagine a long list of non-branded phrases that a challenger could target with this tactic, too.

 

Ranking for the Issues

Ranking for crutial issues, especially in a state or local election, is a quick way to expose the candidate to new audiences. Fracking in Pennsylvania is a hot topic, but we don’t see any politicians.

PA fracking in the search results

It is surprising that this doesn’t happen more often. Well, maybe it shouldn’t be with obfuscated naming like “Real Family Values” and “Human Life Won’t Become A Cat.” I don’t know what either of those mean.

Advertising on Your Opponents

Advertising on a competitors brand name is nothing new. I have not seen this yet with 2016 presidential candidates, but it might be too early. Wait until after the primaries.

Mockup: Google ad for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

This is a mockup of a competitor ad that Bernie Sanders might run against Hillary Clinton. The user is researching Hillary’s stance on key issues and Bernie’s campaign sweeps in to steal the top spot, guiding the voter to learn more about his positions.

Changing the Search Results for Friends

Remarketing Lists for Search Advertising, or RLSA, allow marketers to change the search results for users who have visited their website. Someone visits the issues page for Candidate A so her marketing team targets anyone searching for anything election related. With traditional search advertising, this would be an expensive tactic. RLSA, however, qualifies the user, making it more affordable and a smarter investment.

Final Thoughts

The office whiteboard is flooded with tactics to influence voters in the search results, like focusing PR efforts on news websites with Google News sitemaps, which expedite indexing and would improve odds of appearing in the coveted Google News box.

Google News sitemap for politics

We could talk about tactics all day. And all night. But I hope the point is clear: Google already influences elections, and not because of a company agenda or rogue employee. This platform (now a verb) is arguably the most influential medium in many American lives. It helps us do everything, from finding new running shoes to killing those annoying fruit flies in the kitchen to researching and aligning with candidates in the 2016 election.

Andrew Garberson is the Search Department Manager. He has led digital marketing efforts in a variety of settings, including agency, entrepreneurial and nonprofit environments, and has master's degrees in business administration and mass communications. An Iowan at heart and Pittsburgher in spirit, Andrew commutes on his 10-speed most days between March and December -- after all, he's only human.

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