Searching For Victory

Google Search Ads are being under and overused this election. Why won’t anyone buy our souls in the right way?

The UK election continues to be the gift that keeps on giving to the advertising industry. Out of all the hubbub, there was one ridiculous story that kept on popping up in my news feeds…

[Please excuse the politics, it will be over soon I promise]

Now to the questions, everyone has been asking themselves lately…

Searching for Victory

Previously On The Snap

Recently the Conservative Party in the UK (AKA the Tory Party) launched their manifesto for the 2017 elections, and it contained a new approach to social care for the elderly. Without going into too much detail, basically people will have to pay for their own care if they have over £100,000 in cash and assets.

This approach has been widely criticised as it essentially means old people will have to sell their homes if they have some sort of chronic illness. With only £100,000 left after this, they will not be able to buy a new home in the UK.

As it would likely affect people with dementia the worst (as they need a lot of care, and it’s better if they can stay in their own homes), it’s been widely referred to as the “Dementia Tax”.

Just like rebranding inheritance tax as the “Death Tax” before it, this newer, catchier (more insulting) name has really caught on.

[/End Politics]


In This Weeks Action-Packed Episode

So far, so politics. Some politicians said they would do something. Many people were against it. Catchy insults were used. The news cycle moved on.

Weirdly though, it moved onto Google AdWords. This caught my attention as I’m obviously an advertising nerd, and the way it was framed was super-odd.

The Dementia Tax story part 2 was about how the Tories were so panicked over the negative response to their care plans, that they *even* took to paying for the keyword “Dementia Tax” in Google AdWords.


What’s weird about this is not that they panicked – a rebranding of one their key ideas is likely to haunt them for years. It’s the idea that it’s surprising for political parties to buy keywords to clarify their version of the truth.


Advertising Is Intended To Convince People Of Ideas

It seems super-weird that I have to say this, but advertising is the exact thing we should expect in this situation. When a large enterprise is trying to convince us of something they basically always turn to some form of marketing.

I’ve said before that expectations on political parties being digitally saavy is particularly low, but this is ridiculous. Politicians in the UK are arguing over something during an election, and they want to change hearts and minds to their point of view. They decide to get their message out there using any means they can, including methods they have to pay for. Shock, horror.

What I don’t understand is why don’t political parties invest heavily in keywords during every debate, over every issue? There are strict rules about spending in UK elections to be sure, but online advertising is generally super cheap. Unless…


Learning Stuff The New-Fashioned Way

I actually initially only heard about the Dementia Tax mainly via the side story – that the Tories had “bought” a keyword. So while pondering the oddness of the story, I also, of course, wondered: “Is the Tories social care plan in actual fact a vile scheme set to destroy everyone?”

Like most people, I Google anything that I want to know more about. This is when the story got even weirder (for me anyway).

Literally the only thing I knew about the Dementia Tax for sure at this point, was that the Tories were putting their ad at the top of every search for “Dementia Tax”. So when I Googled it I immediately noticed the lack of a Tory ad.

I was, in fact, getting a Lib Dem ad. So I refreshed and got the Tory ad. Phew, pre-conceptions confirmed. Then out of curiosity, I refreshed again, and I got an ad by Labour. So…then I refreshed again and I got the Tories again.

F5 is super convenient and addictive, so of course, I didn’t stop there. I refreshed the page over and over and over, and the ads kept rotating between the three main political parties (mainly coming up with the Tory one).

Dementia Tax Results

#1 Or Bust

Sometimes I got more than one ad, but mostly just one. One of the main three parties always came up though.


Stupid Bidding Wars Are Stupid

A bidding war like this over one keyword was probably costing all three political parties a ton of money. Not least of all due to people like me being curious and Googling over and over. A spike in searches would undoubtedly lead to a spike in clicks too.

And I have no doubt that rogue/worthless clicks would be through the roof in a case like this. Lots of people probably clicked because they wanted to know more about the zeitgeist (“What is this thing everyone is talking about?”).

But presumably, a lot of people also clicked out of spite too – trying to cost their political enemies money. (Don’t do this by the way – it’s a real jerk move).

Between the two boosts to clicks, this keyword would become super expensive, super quickly.

Searching for Victory

AdWords works as a real-time auction, kind of like eBay. You say how much you will pay, and if it’s the most you pay a penny more than the person below you. (It’s more complicated actually, but that’s roughly right).

With three parties all bidding to get the number one spot on one day, things could get out of hand really quickly. AdWords is usually a competition among limited marketing budgets trying to get the most bang for their buck possible. This makes the cost per click settle at a reasonable level in most cases.

Having people fight for the top spot like this on one particular day for one particular keyword would mean the price would just keep on going up until everyone’s maximum was hit. I can only imagine the desperate opportunism of the day drove some AdWords specialists to enter some numbers they’d never thought they’d be typing.

Unsurprisingly, over a week later and the Tories are still dominating the top spot for the Dementia tax. They are traditionally the party with the deepest pockets, so obviously the most able to blow through a ton of cash on this tiny battleground.

I can only surmise that within a couple of news cycles, Labour and the Lib Dems noticed how costly this campaign was, and so reduced or stopped what they were doing. The Tories were in it to win it, and “win it” they did.

The number two spot seems to now be mostly taken up by charities (and good on them for cashing in on this over-hyped search trend).


The Smallest Victory

In a lot of ways, what the Tories did make a lot of sense. They wanted to get their message out, and they targeted people right at the point they were ready to hear that message.

However, spending a lot of money on a single keyword will unlikely to give a good return on investment. While it’s impossible to guess the effect of this one keyword on voter intention, this keyword undoubtedly was more trouble than it’s worth.

Take a look at the above the fold results for the Dementia Tax.

Google Results for Dementia Tax

Yes I clicked on the Tory result! I wanted to know about the zeitgeist too ok?

Of course, every search has pages of information, but this was the big story of the day, and everyone wanted their page to be THE page for it. On the day it blew up, there were tweets crowding the page too.

The intention (and result) of the Tory ad may have been to get their message to the top of the pile. But it was a much louder and more confusing pile than usual.

So what is the top ad spot worth? Well, the top ad spot in search results reportedly has a click-through rate of over double that of the second spot, at around 7%. This alone makes it worth fighting for. Changing the hearts and minds of 7% of people at a couple of quid a pop is a great investment surely.

However, the top spot of regular search results sits at about 24% click-through rate. This means it’s very likely that more than triple the number of people clicked on a news site rather than the Tories ads.

That’s not to say that the ads can be dismissed as ineffectual, but with this topic being referred to as something that needs explaining by every source, you would expect long clicks to be few and far between. (A long click is when you click on one search result and are satisfied so you don’t go back to Google for more info).

With a keyword like this, paid advertising just won’t control the narrative. It likely affected some people’s opinions, but not the majority. As long as the costs weren’t too high it still made sense, but everything about the Dementia Tax bidding war for the top spot implied that costs were likely skyrocketing.


Do They Want Our Souls?

After I had been sufficiently amused by pressing refresh over and over on one SERP, my brain switched back on. I wondered what other phrases are political battlegrounds. The Dementia Tax is big news today, but there are lots of things that are fought over every day.

I assumed that if the main three political parties were going deep into AdWords for a fight like this they must have some ad coverage on other important topics.

So I Googled around looking for political hot spots …. and found basically none.

Keeping in mind that search results, including advertising, are all tailored to individuals, I saw almost no ads across any political hot potato searches. Maybe Google has worked out my political preferences and doesn’t bother trying to convince me.

I would frankly expect Google to go the other way though. Google wants me to click and showing me an ad of a political party that I won’t vote for probably increases the likelihood. I mean, maybe I want to open my mind, maybe I want to mock them. Either way, I personally am totally interested in what the other side has to say. More than I am for most of the things advertised to me anyway.

Perhaps I’m a rarity in being interested in the other sides political arguments though – I’ll ask my bubble what they think later.


But If They Did Want Them…How Much Would Our Souls Actually Cost?

In a totally unscientific study, I used Google Keyword Planner to see what a few of the hot button topics I am interested in actually cost to advertise on.

KeywordAvg. Monthly SearchesCompetitionSuggested bid
who should i vote for4400low£0.91
death tax1300low£0.42
fox hunting4400low£1.17
brexit negotiations1300low£1.62
trident renewal590low
social care uk140low£1.46

For context – Google takes a rolling average over 30 days, so the effects of the election won’t be totally baked in yet. For this reason, I didn’t include the Dementia Tax in my “study”, as its results are still paltry in the grand scheme of things. But check it out!

No-one is even fighting over Trident Renewal! Corbyn is a full-on CND member and gets whacked for it in the press all the time, but no-one is advertising on it. The so-called Death Tax is usually one of Labours bigger downfalls, and yet it is cheap as chips.

Fox hunting is deeply unpopular, and Theresa May wants to bring it back. Where is the deluge of attack ads?

And if you are actually a swing voter asking the ever-so-important question “Who should I vote for?” all you get is quizzes in your search results. No political parties have bothered to even SEO their way to the top, let alone paid for ads to get our attention.

None of these topics has anything but low competition, and none are over £2 to bid on. It’s like they don’t really care what we think.

Brexit is the defining topic of a generation, and even it is less than one per cent of the cost per click of “rolete” (yes that is roulette misspelt – although gambling is more about numbers than spelling to be fair to those Googlers).


So…How Much Would It Cost For Their Souls Then?

As any seasoned AdWords specialist will tell you – even if you have the #1 spot you should still advertise on your own name. Organic Search Results + Search Advertising somehow equals more than the sum of its parts.

That is to say – if you get 1% of people clicking on your top search results spot brand name (with no ad), and 1% of people clicking on your top spot search ad (with nothing in the search results), you will get more than 2% of people clicking if you have them both. So it’s totally worthwhile, right?

It turns out the Tories agree with this maths, but neither Labour nor the Lib Dems do. Only the Tories consistently have their ads show up when you search for them.

Hilariously though (and again – perhaps only in my search results) – Labour and Conservatives are both competing over the search term Lib Dem:

Lib Dem search results

I refreshed a dozen times and never saw a Lib Dem ad. It’s especially weird as I’m in a Lib/Con marginal so they should be targeting the flub out of me. If you’re curious, I did check on costs for clicks for the three big parties, and this is what I got:

KeywordAvg. Monthly Searches (exact match only)CompetitionSuggested bid
liberal democrats33100low£0.96
lib dems22200low£1.59

This would explain why they are fighting over the Lib Dem results, but not their own. Lib Dem search results are cheap! It is funny to me that there is low competition for all party names though.

You could, in theory, come in and snatch any of these search results from under there noses for not too much money. Your ads would have to be relevant, and your landing pages interesting to be able to actually hit the top spots of course, but it’s do-able.

However, at £0.55 a click for “conservative” you could (try to) convince 100 people that Theresa May is actually 11 foot tall for less than a big night out. Or for around two cinema tickets (with popcorn + a drink), you could make the argument that Tim Farron is a sea monster to 50 (un)lucky people. Google search ads are basically wide open.


In Conclusion

Most people Google things they’re not sure about to find out more information these days. The information they retrieve then becomes their knowledge.

If someone messed with Wikipedia to say that Wombats were a type of cat on the day I was looking up Wombats, I would possibly store that knowledge internally. Possibly forever. That information would become a part of me.

So when I joke about political parties bidding on our souls, I half-mean it. If you search for information on a policy, then click on an ad and believe the content that is very likely the end of you thinking about it. In any election, politicians can now pump answers straight into our heads.

Instead of laughing and saying that it’s odd, they are trying, we should get used to the idea that they will soon all try all the time. Because it just makes sense for them to do it.

Until then though, enjoy doing quizzes to answer existential questions about your political alignment in relative peace.