Candidates Seek Key(words) to Search Success

GOP Front-runners Borrow General-Market Tactic and Skirt Controversy Over Competitive Bidding

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NEW YORK ( -- Google "Mitt Romney" and you'll find he's got company among the paid-search results: John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. That's because front-running Republicans are busy buying up competitive search terms in a bid to steal rivals' traffic and votes.
Photo: Jason Moore
Photo: Jason Moore
Photo: Steve Granitz

(From top) Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have been buying each other's names as online search terms.

The tactic indicates both how tight the race is and the increased savvy among political marketers. Mr. McCain is trying to steal votes even from the other side of the aisle -- he's bidding on "Hillary Clinton."

So far, competitive bidding is limited to the right, but candidates on both sides have begun to snap up issue search terms such as "war in Iraq" and "immigration." Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney have bought "South Carolina primary" and "New Hampshire primary"; Mr. Romney also has bought "Iowa caucus." Even yet-to-be-announced candidates are buying their own names: A Friends of Fred Thompson site is the top paid result for the actor and former senator, and Michael Bloomberg is buying his name on Google and Yahoo.

Same old game
The buy-your-competitor's-brand tactic is old hat in the general-marketing world, especially in highly competitive industries such as autos and insurance -- think Progressive bidding on "Geico," for example.

"It seems to be working," said Jeremy Crane, director-search and online media at web analytics firm Compete. "People are clicking on these links." According to Compete, is benefiting most from competitive search terms, most often at the expense of Mr. Giuliani.

Controversy over brands buying competitor keywords has led to rules on what is acceptable and what isn't. A judge ruled that Google could sell competitor keywords but that a search marketer couldn't use a competitor's trademark in the headline of an ad, something the court considered misleading and infringing. When it comes to politics, names obviously aren't the same as trademarks; the headline for a competitive John McCain ad asks "Rudy for President?" Yahoo has a more stringent competitive-bidding policy.

Josh Stylman, partner at Reprise Media, said if his firm was working on a political campaign and bought a competitor's name, it wouldn't send someone to a generic page. Instead it would link to a page that compared the candidate's views with those of the competitor. Search is a conversation, he said. "We would be providing more value by showing how they stack up." So far, few candidates seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity for direct comparison.

Romney snatches up
Mr. Romney has been perhaps the most aggressive search marketer on the Republican side, and results often turn up not only a paid link to but also a link to his videos on YouTube, a channel he's used aggressively.

"There's a major sector of the Republican voting public that has yet to make a decision or maybe isn't yet paying attention to the race," said Mindy Finn, director of e-strategy for Mr. Romney's campaign. She said she's been trying to think of words other than a candidate's name the voting public is likely to search -- and make sure Mr. Romney is there.

Peter Greenberger, manager of the elections and issue-advocacy team at Google, said it's smart for campaigns to look beyond names when it comes to which search terms to buy. "Voters are very frequently searching online for information about the environment and energy efficiency, global conflict, Iraq war, health care ... it's a great opportunity to bring their message to people while they're actively looking for these issues."

However, Ms. Finn said, issue keywords tend to be the most expensive, with candidates bidding against a larger pool that includes advocacy groups, political-action committees and even news organizations. "We're always evaluating the efficiency," she said.

Missed opportunity
Candidates have yet to use search defensively -- but the race has been fairly amicable so far. Mr. Stylman said it was frustrating to watch John Kerry's nonresponse in the midst of the Swift-boat scandal. It was, he said, "a ripe opportunity" for him to buy contextual ads and get his side of the story told alongside the Swift boaters' version.

"Things are going to get heated, and search can be a wonderful rapid-response vehicle," Mr. Stylman said.

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Contributing: Ira Teinowitz
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