McCain Wins Landslide Over Obama in Search Engine Marketing Election


During the pre-primary season I took a look at how the candidates were doing with SEM. The results were not pretty. Today, more than a year later, after both party conventions are over and the race is on I decided to revisit the SEM landscape of the Presidential election. Once again the results surprised me.

I conducted a heuristic evaluation using the scenario of a person looking for information on the energy plans of both candidates – arguably one of the most important issues in the election.

My first query on Google was in the manner most people search, a generic query. I did a search for “McCain.” There were two ads present. Both pro-McCain. One for McCain’s main site and one for a McCain-Palin site.Note: All screen images can be enlarged by clicking on them.


After clicking the top sponsored link I went to the landing page below. The video auto rolls and the page itself presents four navigation options in the right margin with clear calls to action. Not a bad page though it would benefit by having a clear headline.


I was able to clearly find and click the “learn more” button and then on the next page the global navigation for “Issues” had American Energy as the first option. Mission accomplished.

My next query was a generic one for “Obama.” There were four ads here with one being anti-Obama. The top sponsored ad from Obama’s site had clear messaging and a strong call to action.


The landing proved much more difficult. In fact, I was unable to complete my goal on the landing page.


I could not enter the Obama site without first giving personal information (email & zip code). There is no option to find out Obama’s positions, watch his videos, donate – nothing can be done without first giving out information.


This breaks two of the cardinal rules of landing page optimization. Never ask for personal information unless 1) the person is explicitly assured they will get something of value in return and 2) they understand why you are asking for the information and what you are going to use it for. Think of it as a mini-contract you make with your audience. Obama’s landing page breaks these rules.

Next, as many people are want to do, I proceeded to refine my queries. When we look at more detailed queries McCain’s lead in this race grows.

A search for “McCain energy plan” delivers an ad targeted to the keywords “mccain energy plan.”


Clicking this ad drops us on the most relevant landing page on his site – his plans for energy. Well done.


A search for “Obama energy plan” should be a cause for concern for the Obama camp. My query had a targeted McCain ad (that again goes to that relevant landing page) and a local ad for Obama’s official site that goes to his homepage/landing page roadblock.


After these scenarios I decided to put on my optimizer hat (yes I have one) and dig a little deeper. I found a couple of other interesting pieces of optimization information.

Mccain is taking the query parameter from Google, &t= (and term equals)”mccain” and using it segment data. Segmenting on the keyword level is the best way to optimize and deliver relevance from search. They also create a session ID and segment from channel & source (Google).


Obama’s team is only collecting segment information on the channel level “SEM” and source (Google). Not much useful information here to deliver relevance.


Lastly, I decided to keep my cookies and do a follow up generic search and site visit to see if the experienced changes at all on either site. A second “mccain” query took me to a different page their “home page” rather than landing. This could be rule based on the cookie or testing however follow-on queries suggested this was a rule.


A second “Obama” query and landing brought me back to his roadblock page again.

Doing this research gave me an incredible wake-up call as to the power of Google as a media outlet to influence the distribution of information on the candidates. Still, it’s up to the candidates marketing teams to leverage this power. Clearly, McCain’s is (surprisingly) doing a much better job here.

It also seems so important for the candidates to optimize their SEM efforts and use advanced tools for landing page testing (they’re not) and content targeting (they’re not). What an incredible lost opportunity. With all the money being spent on 30-second ads it’s a black eye to Internet marketing and a colossal failure of their strategists to better understand the electorate using data to provide better experiences online.

My vote is that online targeting and optimization would translate to more votes offline.


8 responses to “McCain Wins Landslide Over Obama in Search Engine Marketing Election”

  1. Brian Chappell Avatar

    Another great post Jon.
    It seems Obama has since added a “skip signup” callout.
    None the less, both sides are deploying what seems to be 5+ year old SEM techniques. Absolutely uncalled for when you are spending millions upon millions in traditional advertising every day.


  2. Marc Beharry Avatar

    Based on the all the press coverage about how Obama is raising record amounts of money online I was thinking he must have had a top notch marketing strategy in place. And I was even wanting to examine it myself, seems like you beat me to it 🙂
    And it was some good investigating I must say. I personally think its amusing that McCain is leveraging cutting-edge marketing and technology. I would want to fire the agency if I was Obama…


  3. Eric Frenchman Avatar

    Thanks for the kind words and very thorough analysis of our search campaign. I am surprised at the coverage we are receiving lately since we’ve been doing this type of work since the beginning. Regarding Brian’s comment above, sometimes you have to make trade-offs due to budget considerations but the fact is TV rules in this industry. The 5+ old tactic comment has more to do with budget than not knowing how to do something.
    Eric Frenchman


  4. Jonathan Mendez Avatar

    Thanks Brian – As of this writing there are NO Obama SEM ads up on Google and since it’s morning I doubt he’s capped out his spend. Hmm.
    Eric – Thanks for stopping by. In my previous review of both parties candidates SEM efforts a year ago McCain came in 2nd to Romney so I’ve seen that you guys have been doing it well since the beginning.


  5. Brian Chappell Avatar

    Yea its def not your fault. PPC is all about budget and its a typical scenario where the top level execs in charge of the campaign don’t really understand the need for online spend.
    Yep, still no ads for Obama, simply astonishing.


  6. Jonathan Trenn Avatar
    Jonathan Trenn

    I can unofficially back up Eric’s point about budget. I’m betting the campaigns look at SEM/SEO as experimental and then toss a few dollars at it here and there, leaving the strategists some crumbs to work wonders with.
    The amazing thing is that the Obama folks are not really doing much at all. Last night I got stuck on that landing page. Since I already signed up to receive Obama emails (as I am with McCain) I didn’t go further, but that’s a lousy way to get grassroots.


  7. Jake Avatar

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the Obama online marketing. I think you might be underestimating the value of those email addresses (just ask Hillary whose landing page did not optimize for contact info collection). Also, there’s always been a “skip signup” button under the email form. Lastly, I searched for energy plan and was taken to a very compelling landing page for Obama.


  8. KP Avatar

    Sorry for getting late into the discussion. I’ve done a pretty thorough analysis of the Obama campaign and one of their key goals was to collect e-mail addresses. I wonder if they forced people to sign up on purpose?
    I would take a look at this report:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: