Experts warn Iowans to look out for political ads on Google when researching candidates

By  | 

DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) -- For voters who have not made up their mind, they might research the candidates online to learn more- but experts are warning to stay vigilant when searching for those candidates. Because clicking "Search" may leave interested voters searching for more answers.

When searching online for a candidate, especially on Google, researchers may notice top results might actually end up being paid advertisements.

"With Google it's kind of like bidding at an auction," said Scott Salwolke, a Google Ads Consultant for AdHawk Marketing. "They're actually bidding on the phrase and saying: 'we're willing to pay this much every time someone clicks on an ad."

Salwolke said Google has made their advertisements more intertwined with search results, making them more challenging to clearly identify.

"It used to be real easy to spot the ads because they were always on the side, they were a different format," Salwolke said. "Well that's not the case anymore. Now they're the first things you see and they're made to look just like all the other listings below."

Salwolke said another concern lies with Search Engine Optimization, or SEOs. He cited a familiar "Google bomb," when users could search "miserable failure," and the first result was the biography of former President George W. Bush.

He explained this was a result of a certain website being shared and linked to very frequently, making it the most popular link related to the search term "miserable failure."

He said even "organic" results can be manipulated, and the "miserable failure" moment from 2003.

For example, if a user types in "Abby Finkenauer," an advertisement paid for by the "CONGRESSIONAL LEADERSHIP FUND" can come up with an ad calling Finkenauer "Nancy Pelosi's Dream." The ad blends in with the rest of the "organic" web links, but is positioned at or near the top.

Google requires "all political ads include a disclosure identifying who has paid for the ad." In most cases, Google says that disclosure is generated automatically. In one instance, however, it was not.

When searching First District Congressman "Rod Blum" on Google, people may find an advertisement to a story done by TV9 in May.

TV9 did not pay for the advertisement.

Concerns grew when the citation of who actually paid for it was missing. The source of that ad now says it was paid for by "FINKENAUER FOR CONGRESS."

Salwolke confirmed a missing citation is against the regulations set by Google.

"They can't represent themselves falsely and say: "hey, this is going to a news page," Salwolke said. "It has to have on there that this is funded, paid for- kind of like what you see on the TV ads. Where this is funded, paid for by this group or this party."

Google told TV9 while anyone can take out an ad, it is a violation of policy not to disclose who paid for it, but that does not mean Finkenauer's campaign is responsible for the error. TV9 has not heard back from Google asking who was responsible for the error.

For experts like Salwolke, there is one solution: look closely.

"So for the Average Joe on the street, if they're not aware of it or paying attention, that little notation 'Ads'- they won't know it's an ad," Salwolke said.

A spokesperson with the Blum campaign said: "Ms. Finkenauer’s pattern of violating rules is quite concerning. First, it was sending unsolicited text messages to voters with incorrect polling location information. Now, she is violating not only Google policies, but FEC campaign advertising regulations as well.”

A spokesperson with the Finkenauer campaign responded saying: "The Finkenauer campaign fully complied with Google’s protocol surrounding the purchase of this advertisement. This was an error on Google's part.”