Search Marketer Exploited Google's Election Ad Roadblocks

A search marketer found a way to break through Google's barriers for search ads and spread misinformation about U.S. candidates, which likely led the company to bar election-related advertising after all polls close on November 3.

Reports suggest the move might have been prompted by the possible delay of final election results this year because of the high volume of mail-in votes driven by the coronavirus pandemic, but Wired reports a different scenario. 

Google had promised to police political advertising on its platforms, requiring approval to run an election ad that requires the advertisers to first verify their identity. Those approved could only target by location, age, and gender.

Patrick Berlinquette, Berlin SEM founder, tested the system to see whether it really worked. He ran a series of ads in July that were pegged to election-specific search terms, targeting people who might be using Google to figure out for whom they wanted to vote.



In one example, Berlinquette entered the search keywords “should+vote+Biden” for an ad that read, “You Shouldn’t | He’ll destroy this country,” according to Wired. Other ads used the phrase “Say No To Joe.” He ran similar, anti-Trump ads keyed to search terms like “why+vote+Trump.” 

Google approved the ads in both instances and let them run until Berlinquette disabled them. He set a low budget, targeted narrowly, and let them run for a week. The ads racked up a few hundred impressions and a few dozen clicks.

They weren’t flagged as election ads, so the full suite of targeting options remained available. He simply avoided using a candidate’s first name, a major loophole in Google’s political advertising policy.

Berlinquette considers the ability to run ads with any URL one of Google’s biggest vulnerabilities. “The advertiser can basically bring you wherever you want, with no check, when the entity you’re sending the traffic to did not write the ad,” he told Wired. “To the end user that’s using Google, they have no idea. Hopefully not only with political ads, but across the board, Google will take that more seriously.”

Last week Google said it would temporarily ban political ads for one week after the polls close. Ads referencing officeholders, candidates, political parties, ballot measures or elections will not be allowed, according to an email to advertisers obtained by The Hill.

Ads on election-related search queries will also be prohibited, and Google will evaluate other ads on a case-by-case basis.


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