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A look at presidential SEM

A look at presidential SEM Jon Kagan

To be perfectly honest, I am not a fan of election season at all. But I am a huge fan of SEM. Now that we are down to the two major candidates, I decided to do a basic visual audit of their search marketing initiatives. (Full disclosure: A discredited conspiracy theory about Google unfairly suppressing results in the auto-complete partly inspired my desire to look into this.)

To assess performance, I decided to use the ad preview tool in Google and Bing to look at results in five states. I reviewed SERPs around candidates' names and a few major topics. Looking into areas such as URL tracking architecture, brand keyword coverage, ad copy messaging, linking, and ad extensions. (Please note that all research was completed before October 4, 2016.)

URL tracking architecture

Both candidates are using Google Analytics, which means a mere auto-tag will give you the upfront basic info you need to pull into GA. However, both candidates duplicated by manually adding in term, campaign, source, medium, etc., while both clearly had auto-tagging enabled. URL references to YBN (i.e. Yahoo Bing) and Text (i.e. text ads) lead me to believe it might not be as advanced of tracking strategy as one would hope for in the next leader of the country.

Takeaway: There is either an advanced tracking tactic I am missing, or neither team knows what they are doing.

Results: Tied

Keyword coverage

I searched for candidates first + last name, last name by itself, first name + middle initial/name + last name, and slogan/tag line ("Make America Great Again" vs. "I'm with Her"). Needless to say, the coverage was interesting…

In dozens of searches in Google and Bing, through five states, Donald Trump triggered 100 percent of the time on "Donald J Trump," but less than 10 percent of the time in either engine on "Donald Trump." I could also not find an instance of him triggering in Google for "Trump," but I found his ads trigger 75 percent for the same keyword in Bing. But you know who does show up about 75 percent of the time in Google (though not very much in Bing) on "Donald Trump"? Hillary Clinton. On top of that, she doubles down on the competitor bidding and calls out Trump directly in her ads.

On the other end of it all, Hillary Clinton has a 100 percent coverage in both engines on "Hillary Rodham Clinton," but coverage becomes inconsistent when you drop down to just "Hillary Clinton" (this may be a function of the search engines around election content) and "Clinton." However, one thing I do notice is that there is no sign of competitive bidding from Donald Trump.

Takeaway: For some reason, candidates are not a fan of bidding on first + last name, but love it with the middle names. But Hillary gets bonus points for competitor bidding, and Donald loses points for not filing an ad copy trademark violation with the engines.

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Ad copy

First of all, I recognize ETAs are a bit frustrating, and slightly confusing at times, but it is no excuse to be sloppy or incomplete. Any search marketer worth their weight finds a way to deal with it. With that being said, let's talk messaging -- for Donald, aside from PLAs, I found a handful of different messages. All are roughly the same, except for one that incorporates "Make America Great Again" (when bidding on the keyword), and all but one ad was soliciting donations in the ad copy. The one tactical ding to the messaging is on the display URL, though it may be an effect of ETA -- needless to say "secure.donaldjtrump.com" is typically not as aesthetically pleasing as www.donaldjtrump.com."

On the other end of the spectrum, Hillary only seems to have one message on her keywords in Google. The message is slightly modified for Bing, but is the same (likely tweaking for ETA in Google). Hillary does use "Trump" in Google messaging (but not Bing) on her keywords, but more so, she uses it extensively on the competitor bidding on Donald's keywords.

Takeaway: Donald's messaging is consistent, purposeful for his need of the channel (donations), and has a slight variety to mix it up. Hillary lacks variety on her own keywords, but written appropriately to reduce cost on Donald's keywords. Both miss the boat on device specific messaging opportunities.

Winner: Tied (One doesn't give much variety in the messages, the other isn't taking full advantage of the ad's character counts.)


I split this look into main ad link and site links. Donald's main ads (aside from PLAs), all went straight to his donation page, which was perfectly in line with the ad messaging. His site links that would trigger -- all but one (I saw seven rotating in total) -- brought you to his retail store for apparel/swag or a donation page. One that wasn't for donation's brought you to "Get More Info," which did provide new and informative content, but also solicited donations. As for Hillary, every one of her main ads links to the "Join the Campaign," which is in line with her messaging, and brings you to a page to add your email and zip code. Her site links drop you on various URLs (I found four rotating), and one brings you to more info, while the other three solicit donations or try to get you to "Join the Campaign."

Takeaway: This once again revealed that Google is still not great about policing site links so that they don't link to the same page as the ad, and that two or more site links triggering at the same time are not going to the page either. The candidates both did an acceptable job on the linking to get what they want from us (our money and/or a way to get in touch with us to get our money and time later on). But Donald exploited the engine's poor editorial oversight to his advantage.

Winner: Donald Trump

Ad extensions

As ad extensions are playing a bigger and bigger role in SEM efforts, it is important to maximize them. Both candidates had site links; I can only assume they are using expanded sitelinks, but I only found the expanded text in Bing, not in Google (for both candidates). Neither candidate had a review extension, which I found shocking -- surely you could find at least one reputable news quote about yourself? Structured Snippets we can ignore given the vertical. As for phone extensions, this was interesting, because on Donald's page you could donate by phone, so why not run it on one? Hillary didn't seem to have the donate by phone option. Either way, neither was running the extension. Lastly, callouts: Hillary had them in both engines, Donald did not have it present at all.

Takeaway: Donald and Hillary are both missing some easy opportunities, but Hillary is missing fewer.

Winner: Hillary Clinton


Neither candidate is doing an amazing job in their SEM effort. Hillary appears to have a leg up in tactics and strategy, while Donald is pretty solid at getting straight to the point on what he needs. I must say I do penalize both candidates on their brand keyword coverage being less than great. Hillary's competitive bidding strategy and messaging efforts is impressive, while Donald merely needed to file a trademark authorization violation with the engines to get "Trump" taken out of her ad copy and up her costs (yes, "Trump" is trademarked). But at the same time, Hillary is not visibly giving the same love to Bing as she is with Google (a big mistake, as they have one-third of U.S. searches).

Needless to say, the candidates' campaign teams are in charge of the SEM effort, and there is definitely room for improvement. All I can really say to this is sit back, search, and enjoy the fiasco of this election from the comfort of the SERP.

Jon Kagan entered the online marketing industry in 2005 – starting out in the SEM world. From there, he progressed and expanded into other sectors of the digital marketing world. Jon is currently the Director of Search & Biddable Media at...

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