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French party exploits Google Adwords

Political leaders in majority party use Adword system to direct users to the party's sponsored links.

France's majority party has admitted to leading a marketing campaign using Google's Adwords system of sponsored links.

Keywords evoking the violent situation in the Parisian suburbs and elsewhere across the country point to a petition in support of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Over the weekend of Nov. 5 and 6, Web surfers who entered terms such as "violence," "riots," "suburbs," "burned cars" or even "scum" into the Google search site were presented with an advertisement linking directly to the official UMP ("Union for a Popular Movement") Web site.

More precisely, the link directed Internet users to a petition supporting party President and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's "zero tolerance policy" in response to the confrontations rocking the suburbs of Paris.

"Since the riots began, we've received many e-mails of support, with a number of activists and elected officials circulating as many as 17 petitions backing Nicolas Sarkozy," a party spokesperson told ZDNet France. "So we asked our technical contractor, L'Enchanteur des nouveaux m?dias, to channel such requests so that Internet users conducting searches surrounding the violence and the UMP come across an (official) document."

The technical contractor subsequently turned to Google France and its Adwords advertising system. "We purchased three 'families' of keywords," confirmed Arnaud Dassier, director of L'Enchanteur des nouveaux m?dias. "Political keywords, those dealing with Nicolas Sarkozy as an individual and, finally, keywords with the Paris suburbs as their theme."

On this last point, Dassier noted that an experiment was conducted over the weekend to determine how much traffic could be directed to the petition using that type of keyword, with surprising results. "We had well above average click rates, with spikes of up to 10 percent or 15 percent at times," he added.

Dassier said he sees no ethical dilemma in using such semantic registers to generate traffic to a political site. "These are words people use every day that they read in the newspapers." He pointed out as well that the press itself doesn't refrain from relying on similar tactics.

Dassier denied having deliberately bid on search queries such as "scum," blaming instead the Google Adwords system. For a given keyword, the system provides a list of synonyms or associated lexical fields that will also bring up a sponsored link.

"We've largely cleaned up such query lists, some of which contained words even worse than 'scum.' We never even intended to let the keyword 'scum' get through," Dassier insisted.

However, as revealed by screen captures ZDNET France performed on the morning of Nov. 7, the sponsored UMP link came up during a search for that term. It stopped appearing as the day progressed.

ZDNet France also tested the Adwords system itself: It turns out that the purchase of a given keyword (in this case, "scum") can only occur if it's been expressly chosen by the advertiser.

Google France did not respond to ZDNet France's requests for comment.

By midday Nov. 7, a number of other UMP-sponsored links had ceased to appear.

"They were so successful that they caused the system to crash. It was a technical problem," the UMP spokesperson insisted. Yet the campaign is far from over. "It will go on as long as these events do--as long as the French people remain concerned and continue to seek information on the subject," Dassier said.