Google at Politics Online: Making News, Touting Tools

Last week, the big dog of the Internet world jumped the fence and bounded into DC: for the first time, Google was an inescapable presence at a Politics Online Conference, with a heavy sponsorship role, two full presentations and a Google Lounge (nice beanbag chair, guys). In the process, unwittingly, the company persuaded me which presidential candidate to back in ’08.

Besides the sponsorship, Google’s most visible role in the proceedings fell to Elliot Schrage, the company’s VP for Global Communications, whose Thursday afternoon presentation made a little news here, there and elsewhere, particularly his comments about the Viacom/YouTube lawsuit and the ease with which false information can spread through the ‘net (his defense of Google China got less notice).

Schrage discussed four main challenges the company faces, looking forward to the ’08 elections:

  • How does Google provide third-party tools to campaigns, while still providing for the full range of political points of view (i.e., think of all the third-party and other candidates excluded from YouTube’s YouChoose ’08 channel).
  • How does the company promote political participation without picking sides? One answer — online political tools that remove elite controls over the public process and help democratize political dialogue long before voting begins.
  • How does Google provide a platform for free expression without also encouraging ugliness?
  • How does the company direct voters to information they need without overwhelming them?

Schrage then discussed several fundamental changes that the ‘net brings to politics:

  • Transparency: tools such as video let people “inside” the candidates and lets the candidates reach voters without going through media filters. The dark side? The ‘net emerges as the biggest tabloid publication imaginable, with drive-by character assassination as easy as typing. The boundaries between public and private lives constantly erode.
  • Accountability: the free spread of information lets us hold politicians accountable for the words and actions. Of course, lies can spread just as freely, and information can be manipulated (by Google-bombing, for instance).
  • Fundraising: online fundraising leads to the rise of the small donor who can monetize his or her passion for a candidate or cause.
  • Access: the ‘net makes it eas for voters to join the process and for candidates to find the voters. The down side? Campaigns will have to carefully govern their reach — who’ll be the first one busted for using political spyware?

Speaking broadly, Schrage mentioned some additional benefits (for instance, using data-mining to help canvassers work more efficiently) and dangers (what happens when 527 groups or private citizens buy adwords for or against a candidate, or when people start tracking candidates via GPS to set up heckling opportunities).

Finally, Schrage discussed Google’s specific initiatives for ’08, particularly the YouChoose channel and a new political team that will help campaigns use the company’s tools effectively (email them yourself at He also mentioned that Google will invite candidates to visit the company to talk about technology and that it will be expanding customization options for mashups, which are becoming a useful tool for political communicators.

Things got a little feisty during the question-and-answer session, with talk of a Google truth-detector using statistical analysis to dissect politicians’ statements (not yet, but who knows what the engineers are tinkering with?), click-fraud (the company’s working on it…click-fraud is a threat to its bread and butter), China (the company figures that the good it can do by opening information up in China outweighs the downside of content restrictions) and the Viacom lawsuit (shockingly enough, Schrage’s confident in Google’s position and in its lawyers, and mentioned that companies file lawsuits all the time to improve their position in business negotiations — and to get attention).

Google’s role continued the second day of the Politics Online conference, with a tutorial on Google tools scheduled for the painfully early hour of 8:30. Others have already covered this session in detail, so I’ll just pull out some highlights. For instance, when discussing the process of buying Adwords, the Google rep suggested paying attention to more than just the keywords and the bidding process: buyers need to look at the quality of their creative and of their landing pages. Testing is vital! As well, advertisers need to be careful to tie their offline and online messaging together, since offline activity will often drive online search activity. Interestingly, he discussed using search as a way of measuring overall marketing effectiveness, since Google’s analytical tools let you see the number of searches on issues you might be promoting.

As for other kinds of advertising, Google reps talked about the promise of targeted video ads capable of delivering different messages to different audiences. For instance, they showed a Saturn ad that used Google Earth images to zoom in to a particular dealershp in Las Vegas and then dissolved to a video of the manager OF THAT STORE, plus a call to action — one of 20 different ads that would be served up depending on where the viewer lives. The political applications are obvious. Finally, the director of YouTube’s new political channel (at the company barely a month) echoed what most other analysts have said about political video: clips that work are short and personal and engage viewers directly.

Just like the one for Monty, my man for ’08, who was briefly featured in Schrage’s presentation. Who says Google’s not taking sides?

Update: See also David All’s coverage.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • This article is linked at Politics 2.0 – What’s Now and What’s Next, The Convergence of Politics and Web 2.0. Politics 2.0, has leading political contributors including James Kotecki.

  • The political views of Google, or any other interface professional, need not and ought not be an issue.
    The ability to correctly interpret a poorly worded email and give a reply in the writing style of the candidate, faithfully using his or her exact views, is a purely technical problem, it is not easy and it may never be perfect but it can be approached.
    Imagine 10,000 watching an Internet mass meeting and imagine a few hundred questions. The only option is an AI systems that responds to each email in accordance with the latest views expressed by the candidate, and using a huge database, previously indexed, for a back up.
    All the answers must be, of course, congruent with the true and accurate views of the candidate, or the effort is a waste. But, the credibility of AI will even enhance that of the candidate, more than one has been cought in a contradiction. AI can find all of them ahead of time and ask the candidate to deal with them, forever after.
    It can be done and it will be done, if not next year, by the next election.