Google is a huge player globally in online advertising. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns the two most visited websites in the world –Google and YouTube. Google’s market share in search is over 90% and the average YouTube user watches over 23 hours of videos per month. Both websites include prominent advertising space. YouTube has an advertising reach of 2.09 billion users worldwide over the age of 18.
The considerable revenue Alphabet brings in from these websites is highly dependent on the availability of advertising on these platforms. In the third quarter of 2022 alone, Advertisements on Google Search brought in $39.5bn of revenue, YouTube advertising $7bn of revenue, and Display ads on the Google network $7.87bn.
The prominence of these two websites, and their far-reaching audiences, makes Google Ads a key part of the digital campaign plans of political campaigns.
There are four different elements of advertising that are important to describe before getting into the details of the platforms: ad placement, how the advertiser is charged, bidding and keywords.
The Google and YouTube advertising network consists of three main placements of advertising:
The kind of digital marketing offered by Google and YouTube is often known as “PPC” or “pay-per-click” advertising, based on the premise that the advertiser pays each time a user clicks on an advert.
But the term PPC doesn't tell the full story. There are actually four ways in which the advertiser might be charged for a Google or YouTube advert: clicks (as above), impressions (usually charged per thousand times an advert is seen – cost per mille or CPM), conversions (when a user donates or buys something) or views (for video ads).
If your main goal with an advert is to get people to visit your website, you will typically want to be charged per click. If raising awareness and reaching as many people as possible is the aim, then you’d most likely choose to pay per impression. If the goal of an advert is a conversion – such as signing up to the email list or donating – then being charged per conversion might be the best bet. The person paying for the advertisement will choose for each of these, and often political parties will outsource this decision to a consultant or agency. Determining this ad strategy forms a key part of the work that a consultant or agency will do.
There are two more key concepts to explain before looking at the platforms in more detail – bidding and keywords –as these also form key elements of the work consultants might be asked to do for an election campaign.
Google Ads runs an auction 'every single time it has an ad space available.' The spaces are set for each user's personalised experience and they are available in real time. This means, for example, every single time a search is carried out by a user in the search engine, there is at least one available advertising spot. The bids are set in advance in an advertiser's account, along with the keywords and targeting options chosen. Their pre-determined settings will decide whether an advertiser will be part of the auction and the amount they will bid. If they win the auction and the ad is shown, this bidding process will also determine how much the advertiser is charged. Political parties may hold their own account, which they run themselves, or provide access to their account with consultants who advise them.
Keywords are used as a method for targeting advertisements across all three types of advertising, in slightly different ways.
For Search ads, the keywords match the search terms that people are using; if you are bidding on a specific keyword, it means you want your ad to show when someone searches using that word or phrase.
For YouTube ads, the keywords selected for the ads mean the ad will show for videos that match that kind of content.
With the Display Network, the keywords used will relate to the content of the website on which the ads will appear.
Keyword research, described further below, is something that is especially vital as it ensures that the right people are seeing ads. It’s a key task that a consultant or agency might be asked to carry out.
For very large advertisers, there is an additional Google-run platform, Display & Video 360 (DV360). Large agencies might use this to manage multiple campaigns simultaneously across different platforms. One of the advertised benefits of using DV360 is the use of machine learning to automate the bidding process as well as ad optimisation.
Only political parties who can engage with more expensive providers would draw on these services.
Paid search ads appear on the search results page:Analysis of how the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign used paid landing pages, accessed: 30 January 2023. Source: Instapage>
The content of an advert consists of a headline and copy. Adverts are often set up as what is known as a "responsive search ad," where up to four variants of the copy are added, as well as up to 15 headlines, allowing Google to test different combinations of headlines and copy to determine which performs best.
Aside from keywords, the targeting of these ads for political campaigns is limited in comparison to non-political ads. The target category options available are:
This set of targeting limitations has been in place for political ads since 2019.
How much is paid can vary. For example, when paying per click, the advertiser pays each time someone searches and then clicks through to their website from an ad using a search term they’re bidding on.
An agency or consultant might be expected to manage an entire search campaign on behalf of a candidate or party. This would include planning the strategy, producing the content, keyword research, setting up the ads and analysing results and performance while the campaign is running. The strategy and content would usually be signed off by the client before going live.Google Search result showing sponsored content, accessed: 20 December 2022. Source: Google Ads Transparency>
If not working on the whole campaign, then a consultant or agency might be employed just to work on one of the following aspects of the campaign:
Keyword research: arguably the most crucial task, as this determines when the ads are shown to users. Negative keywords might also be used so that the ads will definitely not be shown for specific searches known to be irrelevant. Google provides a Keyword Planner tool to help advertisers research which terms users type in to the search engine that they might want to bid on. It gives an estimated number of searches that a keyword receives each month, as well as the average cost for an ad to show on searches for specific keywords. Looking at the search terms used to reach a candidate’s or party’s website in Google Analytics and Google Search Console is another common research technique.
Analyse results and performance: inside the ads platform but also tracking conversions, in Google analytics for example, to measure the full effectiveness of the ads.
Set bid amounts: potentially even to the level of opting for different bid amounts for different keywords.
Display ads (also sometimes known as banner ads) are also created through the Google Ads interface, where the Search ads are created. But they are a completely different kind of advert.
First of all, they are not displayed based on user searches. Instead, the ads are shown in and around content on webpages someone visits. This could be news websites, or a Google product such as Gmail, as well as any other part of their network. The sites and apps are all part of the Google Display Network, a whole series of websites and apps that Google claims numbers 35 million. Website owners can sign up to display adverts and receive payment by joining the AdSense programme.
Secondly, these ads are heavily image-based, as opposed to Search ads, which are primarily text-based:Sample, customised political ads, accessed: 20 December 2022. Source: Speak Easy Political>
There are also two types of Google Display ads. “Responsive ads” allow the advertiser to upload some image and videos, text and logo, and then Google will combine different combinations of the assets and test them with users to see which versions of the ad work best.
"Uploaded ads" allow the advertiser to keep complete control of the combination of image and text by uploading either images or HTML code.
Keywords are then used to determine where the Display Network ads are shown. Google recommends that advertisers “Choose keywords that you imagine could appear on websites where your customers might browse.” What’s also noteworthy is that: “Depending on your keyword setting, your ads instead may show to audiences based on their recent browsing history or other factors, rather than the content of the page they’re currently viewing.”
So the choice of keywords is critical to determining where ads will display – but also in choosing who the ads will be shown to, as a user’s browsing history is also taken into consideration.
The use of Display ads falls into four categories, according to OnlineCandidate:
AdHang, a political campaign agency in Nigeria, also identify a couple of other categories:
Finally, another use of Display ads is for retargeting – showing additional ads to people who have already visited your website but, for example, didn’t sign up to receive emails or make a donation.
Similarly to Search ads, a consultant or agency might be hired to run an entire display campaign, from content creation through to monitoring of performance, including keyword research, bid management, targeting and overall strategy. This is how the agency AdHang has worked on political campaigns in Nigeria.
SpeakEasy Political have a series of templates that can be used by candidates to create their own display ads. So again, as with Search ads, it could be that consultants are hired to work primarily on the keyword research and ad campaign strategy rather than the content creation, which may also been done by a separate design firm.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of YouTube video ads:
Both types of non-skippable ads, the longer ones as well as bumper ads, are paid by impressions, as all users are forced to watch the full advert.The different types of video campaigns, accessed: December 2022. Source:Google ad video campaign creation screen> The different types of video campaigns in Google ads, accessed: December 2022. Source:Google ad video campaign creation screen>
The two main methods for targeting video ads on YouTube (aside from age, gender and location) are topics and keywords.
“Topics” are broad overarching categories of videos, such as “News” and “Media.” “Keywords” are much more specific and can be words or phrases related to a YouTube video or channel that the advertiser’s audience is watching or interested in.An example of a video used as a political advert in Germany by political party Die Linke, accessed: December 2022. Source: YouTube> An example of a video used as a political advert in the US by Young America’s Foundation, accessed: 20 December 2022. Source: YouTube>
Video production and editing is a huge task that is often outsourced to agencies.
YouTube ad campaign management is a little less involved than Search or Display Network ad campaigns. The choice of topics and keywords and ongoing management of ads are still tasks that can be handled by agencies and consultants.
For all types of Google ads, advertisers can also create custom audiences. Using the audience manager, there are three particular features worth mentioning:
Customer list: A list of email addresses and/or phone numbers can be uploaded. Users who are matched by Google using the uploaded data file can then be shown adverts across the different Google products.
Types of websites: Advertisers enter a list of website URLs and ads can then be shown to people who have visited similar websites.
Search Terms: Advertisers can add a list of keywords and ads can then be shown to people who have searched for these words or phrases in Google search.
As well as the reduced targeting options available listed above, since 2018 Google has required election advertisers in specific countries and territories to be verified to use their platform, initially in the US before rolling this out to additional countries. This includes agencies and consultants working on behalf of candidates and parties. This verification process is currently required for advertisers looking to run election ads in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the EU, India, Israel, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US.
When a verified advertiser creates ads, 'in regions where election ads verification is required [all election ads] must contain a disclosure that identifies who paid for the ad.'
Where is this disclosure visible? For Google Search this disclosure is shown in ads directly. On YouTube, it’s in 'Why this ad?' which is found through the “Info” icon or the 3-dot icon, and for Display ads it’s found in 'Why this ad?' through the AdChoices icon.AdChoices icons that users can click on to learn more about ad disclosure, accessed: 30 January 2022. Source: https://support.google.com>
It is unclear whether any kind of verification for political or election ads is required in countries or territories that are not in the list above.
Political and election ads shown in the countries listed in the previous section can now be searched and viewed on an ads transparency page made available by Google.Political ads shown through Google in the United Kingdom: accessed 20 December 2022. Source: https://adstransparency.google.com/>
It’s possible to see who the advert is on behalf of, how often it was seen, when it was live, and how much was spent. Clicking on each of the ads also shows additional targeting information:An example of the detail available for each in the ads transparency tool: accessed 20 December 2022. Source: https://adstransparency.google.com//>
It also allows you to see ads that have been removed for a policy violation:An example of political ad removed for a policy violation, showing information about how often it was shown and when it was live, accessed 20 December 2022. Source: https://adstransparency.google.com/>
What is also striking is how many times ads that are removed for a policy violation are shown:A series of ads by the California Republican party, removed for a policy violation in the United States, accessed: 20 December 2022. Source: https://adstransparency.google.com>
The 12 ads in the image above were shown 366,000 times before being removed. These were ads that contravened Google’s advertising policies, including misinformation.
This is a summary overview of some of the key ways that Google ads can be used for political and election advertising. This is constantly changing, with new features being regularly added and others removed.
If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.
The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.
Glyn Thomas is a freelance digital communications consultant. Based in Berlin, he works with NGOs, charities and non-profits in Europe, the UK and North America. Connect with Glyn either at glynthomas.com or via LinkedIn.