In the wake of last month’s presidential election, we’ve heard plenty of explanatory theories and analysis dissecting every aspect of the contest, from the varying accuracy of the pre-election polls to shifting demographics and the candidates’ strategies in the critical states. Let’s take a look at the role of paid search.
There were more than a few players sponsoring politically-oriented search engine marketing in the months leading up to the election. In fact, AdGooroo found that 112 organizations sponsored paid ads on U.S. AdWords in the preceding six months, and 41 of these spent more than $10,000 for clicks during that period. (Disclosure: I work at AdGooroo.)
Generally speaking, the paid search efforts in support of the Republican ticket were more splintered than those in support of the Democratic nominee as 18 pro-Romney sites plus the Republican candidate’s official campaign site sponsored ads on Google AdWords in support of Romney compared to 8 pro-Obama sites plus his official campaign website. Despite the Romney campaign seeming to have an edge in terms of the number of supporting organizations, Obama’s campaign was the clear leader across a number of key metrics.
Share of Voice
In terms of share of voice, as measured by the percent of politically-oriented ad impressions on U.S. AdWords, the president’s official site, barackobama.com, garnered 35.5 percent of impressions from May to October 2012.
By comparison, Romney’s official site, mittromney.com, trailed significantly with just 11.7 percent of the politically-oriented ads displayed to searchers on the leading engine in that period.
A leap in PPC spending in the political vertical was clearly visible all the way back in August 2011 as multiple Republicans had recently declared their candidacies and a series of regional debates kicked off mid-month in Iowa with eight GOP candidates invited.
All told, U.S. AdWords rang up an estimated $23 million from political SEM over the past three years. Not surprisingly, the heaviest month of spend was September 2012 when US AdWords booked an estimated $1.7 million in click-through revenue.
By October 2012 the pace of spending fell by half as searches and clicks all declined sharply. Presumably the campaigns believed that most voters’ opinions had gelled by then.
In the final six months leading up to the election, the 112 politically-minded entities spent more than a million dollars per month across AdWords and Bing/Yahoo combined.
Barackobama.com led all players, accounting for 45.2 percent of total spend. Adding in the 8 Obama supporter sites, the Democratic candidate’s share exceeded 50 percent of total PPC spend in the period – more than twice the amount (24.5 percent) of the 19 organizations that supported Romney (with mittromney.com accounting for 16.5 percent of the total).
From May to October 2012, the organizations sponsoring political paid search experienced an average click-through rate of 4.5 percent on their ads compared to an average of 3.6 percent for non-political ads running during the time, suggesting that consumer searchers were more eager to seek information about a candidate or issue than about commercial products or services.
GOP-sponsored ads enjoyed a slightly higher CTR than those supporting Obama, but the upstart Tea Partiers recorded the highest CTR among the political SEMs during the period at 5.69 percent.
Barackobama.com earned 55.5 million ad impressions in the six months leading up to the election as a result of queries on over 10,100 keyword terms. Mittromney.com, by comparison, netted 18.2 million ad impressions during the same period as a result of queries on only 4,800 keyword terms. So, in terms of keyword strategy, the Democrat’s larger, more centralized effort appears to have paid off.
The 23 keyword terms sponsored by barackobama.com that gained the most impressions pre-election included both Barack and Michelle’s names (and Bill Clinton’s) as well as several topical issues of importance to Obama’s supporters (Obamacare, immigration, dream act, OFA – Organizing for America, the campaign’s volunteer organization, and gay marriage).
Top Keywords – barrackobama.com
Meanwhile, mittromney.com’s leading keyword terms (based on impressions) included the names of the candidates who failed to win the GOP nomination, along with Romney, Ryan and institutional names (GOP, Supreme Court, the republic). There were also several topics on which the Romney campaign likely felt forced to defend the candidate’s present and historic positions (Obamacare, outsourcing, maternity).
Top Keywords – mittromney.com
Both campaigns sponsored the name of the other party’s candidate in order to attract site visits from the curious and undecided. Mittromney.com experienced a 7.8 percent CTR on “Romney/Ryan” keywords and a 2.7 percent CTR on “Obama/Biden” keywords whereas barackobama.com had a 5.7 percent CTR on “Obama/Biden” keywords and a 2.2 percent CTR on “Romney/Ryan” keywords.
Logically, voters had less need for information about the incumbent Democrats than about the Republican challengers, and Republican supporters were more curious to see what mittromney.com had to say about Obama and Biden than Democratic supporters were to visit barackobama.com to learn about Romney and Ryan. This suggests that the Democratic supporters had made up their minds earlier than those leaning to the Republican ticket.
All in all, it's difficult to say how much difference paid search made in aiding Obama’s re-election. Certainly part of the president’s online advantage may have been due to the fact that his supporters, being younger, more educated, and more coastal than the overall body of voters, was more predisposed to the Democratic ticket.
Without a doubt, the Democratic candidate’s SEM team outflanked the Republicans in the search sphere, with a more focused effort across a broader list of keywords and substantially more budget devoted to the channel.