In the back and forth on paid Google search ads, voters can find Mr. Obama challenging Sarah Palin's record of reform, Mr. McCain is pointing out Joe Biden's contradictory statements about Mr. Obama and Mr. Obama defending his Christian faith.
Mr. McCain appears to be reaping the most benefit from search. He is aggressively buying Obama and Biden's keywords as well as issues such as "Iraq surge" and "mortgage crisis." As a result, paid search is a huge driver of his online traffic. According to data from Compete, 22% of Mr. McCain's traffic in August came from paid search; only 14% of Mr. Obama's traffic came from paid search.
As the race heats up, so do the presidential candidates' search strategies, reflecting the pointed nature of the final six-week stretch. And while using search for political purposes isn't new, an increased level of search sophistication is emerging as the candidates use the channel to debunk myths and rumors and craft specific, customized landing pages based on what people are searching for.
Type in the words "mortgage crisis," and one of the links will take you to a page on Mr. McCain's website addressing the housing issue. The word "election" will bring up a link to a contribution page for the McCain-Palin ticket. At the time of writing, Obama and Biden searches didn't turn up ads for the McCain page, but it has happened.
On the other hand, Mr. Obama is running against the term "economic crisis." The headline: "McCain Is Out of Touch." The text: "Sign up to learn about Obama's plan for change we need with the economy." The landing page: Mr. Obama's new two-minute ad outlining his economic plan -- and a registration field for people who want to sign up and join the campaign.
Digital-marketing company iCrossing has measured candidates' natural search presence for 224 issue keywords (judged by seeing if any number of their web destinations show up in the top 30 search results) and found that they had no presence for 83% of those issues. At the same time, 87% of the people using the internet are searching for issues. "There are issues that people are concerned about, and candidates have to do something to respond to that," said Kaylan Malm, manager-advanced analytics at iCrossing.
Of course, if you don't live in a swing state, you're unlikely to catch most of the back and forth on search engines. Both candidates, said Peter Greenberger, who runs the political-advertising vertical for Google, are using geotargeting to spend the bulk of their search dollars in states where they have a chance of winning electoral votes.
"The presidential map is perfect for that," he said. "You don't have to extend dollars in states that aren't in contention."
He also said campaigns should take advantage of crisis-communication moments or spikes in interest to try to reach voters when they're looking for specific info. "We see it again and again: Whenever something critical happens -- the announcement of VP picks, winning a primary, the conventions -- we see tremendous increases in traffic, and that's an opportunity to reach audiences."
Data suggest that Mr. McCain's search traffic is of a higher quality than Mr. Obama's. While it's hard to tell exactly who is benefiting the most from paid search without knowing how that traffic is converting, certain qualitative metrics, such as bounce rate, point to a McCain lead. Bounce rate, the percentage of visitors who leave immediately after arriving on a site, is a metric that helps assess which campaign is doing better at keeping visitors that arrive via paid search. According to Compete data, 11% of visitors to johnmccain.com who arrived via paid search in August left immediately, compared with 17% of Mr. Obama's paid-search traffic.
Premature congratulations?"McCain wins debate!" That was the message touted in an ad on WSJ.com the morning of Sept. 26, a good hour before it was even certain John McCain would participate in that night's face-off with Barack Obama.
According to a third-party ad-serving executive, the ad was probably a data-entry error that occurred when a WSJ.com or network-ad trafficker booked the campaign into the system after receiving the creative.
The premature posting wasn't helpful for drumming up the kind of pre-debate publicity Sen. McCain needed. By midafternoon Technorati was unearthing more than 2,000 blogs that had written about the news from the future.