As the presidential campaign kicks into high gear with this week's Republican primary in South Carolina, more voters are turning to Google to learn about the remaining candidates in both parties. And judging by the top-searched questions (i.e. "What does Jeb Bush do?" and "How is Ted Cruz doing?") many Americans still don't know all that much about the candidates, despite their near-continuous advertising and media coverage.
When you search for a candidate using Google, the results page includes the latest news reports about a candidate, his or her personal story, policy positions, links to their websites, and a little bit of campaign spin. Unbeknownst to most people, you'll also find, at mid-page, a new Google creation in which tweets, quotes, story links, and promo videos from the campaigns themselves are displayed in a "card" format—meaning the candidates themselves are controlling some of what you find in your search results. The "candidate cards," as they're known, have a small icon above them with the candidate's name and thumbnail photo ("Donald Trump on Google"), but otherwise, there's no indication that the content is being provided by the candidates.
Google describes the cards as "a new way to hear directly from candidates themselves, in real-time—right in Google Search results." The new feature, Google says in a blog post, "helps voters make more informed choices, and levels the playing field for candidates to share ideas and positions..."
The cards also show up when you search for a campaign event such as a primary or a debate. Google uses a ranking algorithm to determine when and where users might want to hear directly from a candidate, the company says.
While the cards may have been intended to provide crib notes on the candidates for voters, in reality candidates are using them more like small carousel ad units for their campaign spin machines.
One of Cruz’s recent cards contained a video attack ad on Donald Trump (it’s actually pretty funny).
Another contained an offer for a Cruz-branded football jersey. A third card offered up a debate video in which Cruz laid out a number of substantive plans for securing the border, but no information on how Cruz might pay for the plans. Several of Cruz’s cards refer to events like debates and primaries that have already happened. (Early on many of the candidates weren't using the cards at all.)
One Rubio card was a plea for a campaign donation. Another showed Rubio giving a self-described "brilliant" answer to a debate question about abortion. Another announced an endorsement by a Nebraska senator and provided links to a video. Still another showed the candidate’s kids "behind the scenes" on the campaign trail.
Trump’s cards contain still images with quick quotes, like this:
"I'm the last person Hillary Clinton wants to run against. The Democrats are protecting Hillary Clinton."
If you click on the card, you go to a larger presentation of the same content; you can also share the cards directly on social media from the search page. When you click a "More from Donald Trump on Google" link at the bottom, you go right back to the same search results page showing the cards.
Hillary Clinton’s cards contain images and links to her past successes in health care reform and foreign relations. One has the BuzzFeed-ish headline—"9 things you should know about Hillary Clinton’s plan to reform our criminal justice system"—and links to a more detailed plan on the candidate's website.
Bernie Sanders’s cards contain familiar points from the stump speech ("If you're doing everything right but find it harder and harder to get by, you're not alone"), donation requests, and a link to the new "America" campaign video.
In a campaign where the differences in views among the candidates on both tickets aren’t very pronounced, a little spin might be all it takes to obscure the real fault lines between one candidate's position and another's. And though political campaigns still spend most of their time placing ads on TV, the Internet is becoming a more important channel for delivering all kinds of campaign content.
A Google representative points out that the cards are not paid for like advertising by the campaigns. The "experimental" feature, the rep said, is available to Democratic and Republican presidential candidates who have been invited by their party to participate in a primary debate.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said she doesn't find the information contained in the candidate cards to be particularly useful for voter education, but sees nothing wrong with Google's efforts.
"So far, these Internet-based outlets are unproven, but given the disaffection of Americans with the political system, I'm all for things that are done fairly to engage voters in new ways."
The cards, which follow a design motif that's become common with Google and Android, showed up just before the January 28 GOP debate hosted by Fox News and Google.
The idea was to give the campaigns a way to quickly publish additional information beyond the comments of the candidates on the stage. The cards could also be used to rebut points made by opposing campaigns.
But the whole thing got off to a rough start. During the undercard of the debate that night, only Carly Fiorina’s campaign had submitted its information for the cards, according to Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land.
As a result, practically any search query having anything to do with presidential politics yielded a bunch of cards about Fiorina, Sullivan reported.
During the main event, searches returned for all the candidates. Trump’s cards came up too, even though he didn’t participate in the debate that night.
Now all the campaigns are feeding content into the cards, but some search bugs still remain.
For instance, a search for "Kasich" yielded no cards, but a search for "John Kasich" brought them front and center. A search using just the surname of Bush, Cruz, or Rubio bought up those candidates’ cards. You need search only for "Donald" to bring up Trump’s cards.
The campaigns, which are focused on persuasion and spin, can't be relied upon to educate voters on the issues. So it's fair to ask whether Google could have helped voters more by creating its own unbiased, nonpartisan voting guide akin to the Wikipedia box that sits on the right of each candidate's search results page.
In general, though, Google has done some laudable work around the campaign this year, leveraging its search prowess in new ways to deliver compelling insights. For instance, Google Trends has a new dashboard dedicated to providing minute-by-minute views of which candidates, issues, and questions are being searched for most. Google Trends is also providing county-by-county maps of which candidates and issues voters are searching for during primary voting days.