Google’s Washington, D.C. headquarters isn’t what you’d expect from one of the world’s largest corporations. Dotted with brightly-colored seating, large in%uFB02atable yoga balls and white lacquer tables with bowls of candy perched on top, the room presents the corporation’s friendlier face. Inside, hardly anyone wears a tie, and the of%uFB01ce space has a game room and a full-time chef for the employees. Behind all the new media cool, though, Google’s Washington staff is pushing hard to maintain its dominance over large portions of the Internet. The company’s contingent of lobbyists continues to grow as some lawmakers and privacy advocates fret over its online reach. Google wants to conquer the campaign world, as well. From docs to online video, politicos are increasingly reliant on Google’s technology and services, a trend the company is working hard to cement.

The D.C.-based staff has ballooned from just one full-time employee three years ago, to 20 full-timers today including the man tasked with selling political campaigns on the company’s burgeoning menu of online advertising options—Peter Greenberger, Google’s head of elections and issue advocacy. A former Democratic political operative who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Greenberger wooed campaigns to the power of Google search and urged them to spend on YouTube during the 2008 presidential race. Now, Greenberger is hocking the newest weapon in Google’s arsenal: the Google surge. (Google actually prefers the less-militaristic sounding term “network blast.”) In a small conference room at the company’s downtown headquarters, he tells me how it’s energizing the online political ad market.

“With the network blast, every day can be GOTV day,” Greenberger says. “If you’re running 1,000 points of TV in an area, why not run the equivalent of 10 impressions per person on the Internet parroting the same message? I’d actually like to see all media campaigns accompanied by a network blast, and it should be a percentage of the buy.”

The idea behind the blast is to allow a campaign to completely blanket a geo-targeted area with online ads quickly and, says Google, relatively cost-effectively. Here’s how it works: Google provides a list of websites that cover its entire ad network along with a corresponding bid for each site (the minimum amount of money it takes for your ad to appear on a given page). Campaigns can purchase space on anywhere from 1 to 100,000 web sites depending on the desired size and impact of the buy. The campaign pays on a cost-per-impression, or CPM, basis, rather than a cost-per-click, or CPC, basis. Buying CPM gives the ad a better chance of appearing on a chosen site. Some blogs may cost as little as a few cents, while getting on The New York Times web site will likely run several dollars per impression.
“You can blanket an area very effectively and essentially %uFB02ood the zone with it,” he says. That geographic zone can be targeted as narrowly as a single zip code or as broadly as an entire state. Of course the larger the buy, the higher the price tag. Democrat Scott Murphy’s special election campaign in New York’s 20th Congressional District spent some $25,000 on a network blast, which ran from the Sunday before Election Day, through noon that Tuesday. In California, the anti-gay marriage “Yes on Prop 8” campaign’s statewide network blast cost more than $400,000 for 48 hours. In both cases, the strategy was one of massive reach—the campaigns essentially bought up all of the online inventory they could.

Saturating the ad market runs counter to the microtargeting that has become conventional wisdom in online advertising. “The network blast, as much as I love it, is actually the antithesis of everything that we ostensibly believe in,” admits Greenberger. Google’s core online ad message is one that embraces highly targeted communication. If you want to reach young women with children in the suburbs of Chicago who are interested in football, he says, Google can help reach that group, no matter how small. “The network blast on the other hand is more akin to a television shotgun blast,” he says. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

So far, news of the Google surge tactic has spread mostly by word of mouth among consultants, but the company is beginning a surge of its own. Google held a brie%uFB01ng on the technique for consultants earlier this year, and the response was so large that it has held several more. “We’ve had more incoming calls about this tactic than anything we’ve done in the last two and a half years,” he says.

  But the Google surge isn’t a technique for the faint of heart, or the underfunded. There’s more than one way a campaign can royally screw it up warns Eric Frenchman, who was John McCain’s online ad guy in 2008 and is now the chief Internet strategist at Connell Donatelli. “There’s not much time to optimize, and you don’t tend to have a lot of data to go on with most of these,” he says. “So you need to make sure you have the money, and you need to make sure you have the right creative or you shouldn’t even bother.” And despite the buzz it has generated, even the campaigns that have employed it can’t say de%uFB01nitively whether it worked.

If you ask Google, the surge has a winning track record so far—it was a tool in the arsenal of the unlikely winners of last year’s gay marriage battle in California; the campaign of Democrat Creigh Deeds used it to help propel him to victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial primary in June; and Democrat Scott Murphy employed it in a big way in his March special election win. But for consultants and campaigns, some major questions about the surge still loom. First, what’s the right way to employ it? Timing, message and size of the buy are all critical. Second, does it hold potential beyond GOTV? The powers that be at Google certainly think so. And third, and likely most important, does the surge actually work? For answers, Politics turned to some of the online tacticians who have used it over the past 12 months.

As the special election for New York’s 20th Congressional District wound to a close in March, the campaign of Democrat Scott Murphy was sitting on a pile of last minute money. The campaign had already poured plenty into traditional forms of voter contact—TV, direct mail and phones—and “they were open to doing something new,” says Philip de Vellis, the Murphy campaign’s online guru and vice president of new media at the Democratic media %uFB01rm Murphy Putnam. That something turned out to be the Google surge. “Normally you would cherry-pick the websites and users you think it appeals most to,” says de Vellis. “But we just bought up as much of the inventory as possible and on as many different platforms as possible.”

The campaign bought Google’s paid search, Google apps like Gmail, and the Google ad network. “We just said, ‘We’ll take it all.’” The campaign’s online ad buy was geo-targeted across the 20th District and ran for the %uFB01nal day before and through Election Day, employing two distinct messages. In one part of the district, the message was GOTV-oriented—the campaign touted President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Murphy. In the other, the campaign ran a negative ad on Republican opponent Jim Tedisco. “It’s an attractive option because there’s no waste like there is when you’re buying broadcast TV,” says de Vellis, whose media %uFB01rm also did Muphy’s television buys. As for whether it worked, de Vellis says the anecdotal evidence at least was everywhere. “We didn’t really have the mechanisms in place to %uFB01gure out whether it did what we wanted,” he admits, “but I know from people that were up there, the ads were just everywhere.”

It was much the same last November in California where the Yes on Prop 8 campaign spent upwards of half a million dollars on a last-minute Google surge. The goal was the same as the Murphy campaign: overwhelm the opposition with a late online ad surge that gets voters to the polls and generates buzz. The campaign’s buy was so big, the anti-gay marriage ads even made it onto gay-friendly websites in the state demonstrating another tactical bene%uFB01t of the Google surge: distracting the opposition. The late ad blast sent the opposition scrambling to respond when it should have been focused on GOTV. The ensuing uproar actually led to a change in Google policy. Since then, Google has made it easier for individual web site publishers to quickly remove ads which they deem inappropriate for their sites. In the past it could take upwards of six hours to get an ad taken down; now, says Peter Greenberger, it takes an hour to pull an ad.

As ClickZ’s Kate Kaye reported in April, the Yes on Prop 8 campaign also effectively targeted online ads using voter %uFB01le data. “In the case of Yes on 8, online display ads were shown only to registered Republicans and Independents living in California, in addition to California Democrats aged 55 and over,” she wrote. Those ads were running a full month before Election Day. It was all part of a comprehensive web strategy for the Yes on Prop 8 campaign, one which culminated with the surge. The Republican web %uFB01rm Connell Donatelli, which ran the surge for the Yes on 8 campaign, has used the technique more than half a dozen times dating back to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s campaign in 2007.

“The Google surge is practically our move,” says Anthony Bellotti, a senior account manager at the %uFB01rm. “We’ve used it more than any other %uFB01rm to this point.” The key, says Bellotti, is having a feel for the right time to employ it and understanding its limitations. The surge, he stresses, isn’t a complete web strategy. If not properly integrated into a broader-based online media campaign, it won’t work nearly as well.

Like the Yes on Prop 8 campaign, the use of the surge technique was just part of a much larger online strategy for the campaign of Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds. In June, Deeds notched a surprise primary victory over two better-funded competitors including former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe. For the Deeds campaign, the target was speci%uFB01cally Virginia’s Washington suburbs, which was home turf for both of Deeds’ opponents. “We were intrigued by this Google strategy because it allowed us to communicate solely with Northern Virginia voters,” says Kyle Osterhout, a partner at Media Strategies, the Virginia-based %uFB01rm which handled the online strategy for Deeds. “Advertising in Northern Virginia is extremely expensive given the cost of the D.C. market, so it was just a good %uFB01t.”

Deeds headed into the %uFB01nal stretch of the campaign buoyed by a late endorsement from The Washington Post, which became the lynchpin for his surge campaign. The ad blast ran for about a day and a half—beginning on the afternoon before Election Day and running through Election Day itself. During daytime hours on Election Day, the campaign turned the ads on in Washington, D.C. with an eye toward reaching Northern Virginians at work. “I certainly believe it helped,” says Osterhout. “Did it win the race in Northern Virginia? No, it didn’t. There was close to a million dollars of media spent in the last week, and it was really just one of the tools we employed.”

While Deeds’ success in the Democratic primary in Virginia pushed the Google surge into buzzword territory, even Google can’t point to the Deeds race as a clear-cut victory for the surge. Says Greenberger, “I secretly wish Deeds had won by one to three points in Northern Virginia, and we could say [the network blast] had made all the difference. That would have been a cleaner case study.”
With so few metrics to measure its effectiveness and a potential price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for larger campaigns, what is it exactly that makes tacticians excited about the Google surge? “For most campaigns, this falls right within their comfort zone,” says Eric Frenchman. “It gets you the massive reach in a short period of time that only the Internet can provide, and you’re guaranteed to hit your target market.” And, Frenchman says, it’s particularly effective at getting out those short-term messages.

On the eve of Florida’s Republican presidential primary, Governor Charlie Crist endorsed John McCain, and the campaign turned to the surge to spread the word. “The endorsement came on a Friday night and by Saturday we had %uFB02ipped over every single ad running in Florida, and ran a blast about the Crist endorsement,” he says.  

Still, when it comes to spending a small campaign’s scant resources, Philip de Vellis says it’s hard to argue for the use of the surge over more traditional forms of voter contact. Going forward, de Vellis says he’d like to employ it earlier in a campaign to get a better sense of the surge’s effectiveness. Using it in a vacuum early would give campaigns a better indication of how well the tactic can move numbers. “Two years ago most campaigns would have thought this thing was insane,” says de Vellis. “Now, they’re thinking about using it. Within the next two or three election cycles, I actually see it becoming an essential part of most campaigns.”

For Google, the network blast is among the newest political tools, but it’s far from the only one Greenberger is pushing campaigns on. Selling ads into online video on YouTube is another focus—Google is selling pre- and post-roll ads, as well as overlays that direct viewers to the candidate’s website while the video plays (something the campaigns of Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Jon Corzine in New Jersey have both employed). And Google isn’t thinking small. From docs to Google voice, it might not be long before you can practically run your campaign on Google, which may actually be the company’s end goal.

“The technology is really built for collaboration,” says Greenberger. “If you’re in New Hampshire, and all of a sudden you need to open 10 campaign of%uFB01ces tomorrow, we can do that.”

Shane D’Aprile is the senior editor of Politics magazine.