Buying Brexit: the politics of Google ads & the general election

By Pip Thornton

I have been doing some work about the Tories and Labour buying Google adverts for ‘dementia tax’ in the run up to the General election. It is fascinating to me as it shows so clearly what I am trying to critique in my work about the politics and economics of the search engine, and the neoliberalistion of language and discourse through Google’s AdWords marketplace. The potential tainting of the search engine with advertising is of course something Google’s creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page anticipated and indeed initially tried to avoid. This is evident in an appendix to their 1998 paper, on The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, where they noted that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers’. Last week’s debate about the use of paid Google adverts by all three main political parties (and some independent actors) in order to take control of the narrative around the phrase ‘dementia tax’, is a clear illustration of the struggle Google has always had between ‘organising the world’s information’ and making enough money to do so effectively. I have written my thoughts on the dementia tax side of this issue on my own blog, which I have called How the Tories wrote my thesis: the political economy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine.

While I was researching that blog, however, I noticed that the Tories did not stop at snapping up the term ‘dementia tax’. It appears they have also bought ‘Brexit’.

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This is the top ad result on the first page for a search for ‘brexit’ at time of writing. Unlike the ‘dementia tax’ adverts, I have seen no other party political ads for ‘brexit’, so it seems the Conservatives are not in direct competition with the other parties (in the Google marketplace anyway). But by paying Google to advertise in this way, they definitely are in competition with other actors who may already have been bidding on the word ‘brexit’ for other purposes.

It is hard to know what the Tories are paying Google per click, but what is perhaps more relevant is that non-party political advertisers also using ‘brexit’ as a keyword appear to be all charities who are eligible for free AdWords through Google AdGrants, a scheme that faciliates Not-For-Profit groups to enter the market to advertise for support, funding and awareness. They include the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in association with Solve UK Poverty and Go Givers, a ‘Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural programme for Primary and Middle Schools’,  as well as organisations you might not immediately think of as charities such as the think tank Chatham House. I have speculated elsewhere about the potential for distortion of Google search through political (mis)use of the AdGrants system, and explain it in more detail in this article, but this is not the most interesting issue here. The bids made by charitable organisations eligible for free advertising through the AdGrants scheme are capped at $2 per click, so if a wealthier paying customer enters the market, and the NFPs do not want – or are unable – to start a paid campaign, then they are effectively priced out of the market. Not for them the giddy heights of the top Google spot enjoyed by the Conservatives and their General Election budget… the adverts shown below are all to be found languishing at the bottom of pages 2, 3 and 5.

It is of course difficult to know whether one of these charities using the keyword ‘brexit’ would have been on the first results page if the Tory advert wasn’t there. Advertisers are able to pick how high they can afford to go on the rankings list, but as these companies are almost certainly using free AdWords (through AdGrants), then a budget cap would probably not come into the equation.

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As mentioned elsewhere, my research tries to make visible the workings and potential biases of Google’s algorithmic systems, in particular the strange economy (known as linguistic capitalism) which has grown out of the AdWords marketplace, and which revolves around the pricing of keywords and phrases for sale to advertisers in an auction process. Google provides a Keyword planning tool (KWP) which helps advertisers decide how much to bid for each word. I have been using this tool to track the suggested bid prices of around 1200 words for nearly a year now, in fact I started around the time of the Brexit vote in June 2016. As well as some topical poems and texts, I also created a ‘word-cloud’ list of words and phrases that might be interesting to track temporally and also geographically, and I have been feeding all these words through Google’s Keyword planner everyday. Unfortunately for my dementia tax research, the word ‘dementia’ is not amongst that list, so even if I track it from now on, I won’t have the past context, and as far as I know you can’t get the historical suggested bid prices retrospectively. ‘Brexit’ was on the list, however, and its suggested bid price (and the competition data) over the last few weeks is interesting reading given the concerns I have about politics pricing charities out of the market.

I don’t know how long the Tories’ Brexit adverts have been showing up on Google, but I can say that the suggested bid price of the word ‘brexit’, in the UK market (you can pinpoint markets geographically in KWP) has been hovering between £1.60 and £1.80 since July last year (it fluctuated a lot during the actual referendum, but my data is sketchy during the time I was setting up the project). This kind of price range is usually indicative of words used mainly by charities and NFPs using free AdGrants with the $2 cap. On 9th May 2017, however, the price of Brexit jumped from £1.82 to £2.72, well above the price cap for free AdWords. The KWP metrics also give an indication of the ‘competition’ for a particular word, which is ‘the number of advertisers that showed on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google‘. This metric also jumped (in fact it doubled) from 0.04 to 0.08. I have already shown elsewhere that the suggested bid price does not correlate exclusively to search volume, indeed Google don’t suggest it does, so what this shows is that – despite what Brin and Page tried to avoid – Google search has indeed become ‘inherantly biased towards advertisers’ who can buy their way to the top. But further to this (fairly obvious) conclusion, Google has become a forum where the competitive and iniquitous logic of the neoliberal market controls not only products, but also society, culture, and political debate. Political advertising is not a new thing – especially in the run up to an election – but when mediated by the proprietary and opaque processes of linguistic capitalism, it takes on new agencies and raises new concerns. It is also important to remember that the winners in these new digital markets are not only those with the biggest campaign budgets (both commercial and political), but also the auctioneers. With every advert and every click, Google gains not only money, but perhaps even more valuable data.

Pip is a PhD candidate in Geopolitics and Cybersecurity. She is one of the first cohort of students in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Cybersecurity at RHUL, where she is researching Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction. She blogs at linguisticgeographies.com.

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