Google eyes move into political polling work

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Google is using the excitement surrounding the 2016 election to seek a foothold in the political polling industry.

The Internet giant has been pushing its survey products to the staffers and operatives who work for presidential and congressional campaigns, as well as the journalists who cover them.

{mosads}“As we started to get ready for the 2016 cycle, that’s when things really started to pick up a bit on my side,” said Karen Sheldon, a Google veteran who is an account executive on the sales team for the product, known as Google Consumer Surveys.

Sheldon has been on the road promoting the new product at Republican primary debates co-sponsored by the company. She has also appeared at conferences featuring polling experts.

At least one presidential campaign found Google’s pitch attractive enough to put a poll in the field using the tool, the company said, while declining to name the candidate.

Google has also stepped up its outreach to reporters and editors covering the election, giving them free credits to run surveys of their own. The company launched a website in January to explain the service to journalists and let them access data from polls created by Google’s team.

The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have both used Google’s tools for political polling, and the company has struck a longer-term partnership with the Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news website that has attracted attention for its viral videos starring presidential candidates.

The company makes money from the surveys, but the data work has the added benefit of keeping the Google brand prominent in the political conversation.

“We want our data out there, we want the American people to get to the bottom of the issues, we think it’s a really great and innovative tool for journalists to really see for the election season,” said Justin Cohen, a product marketing manager for Google Consumer Surveys, before adding that the effort “obviously has great branding impacts as well.”

The cost of running customized polls with Google Consumer Surveys can run in the thousands of dollars, according to marketing materials. Campaigns that want to use more advanced targeting options sign longer-term contracts with the company.

Data is collected through survey boxes that appear online before someone can read a news article and through an application for the company’s Android operating system that provides credits to the Google Play store for answering questions.

The system delivers results more quickly than traditional polling. The Independent Journal Review, for example, has used survey data to counter the prevailing conventional wisdom around presidential debates; “Ignore the Media Pundits: Bernie Sanders Won the First Democratic Debate,” read one headline in October.

Justin Green, the site’s politics editor, says that he values the flexibility that comes from being able to post a poll and get results quickly.

“In most scenarios, unless I really overload it, I can have a poll open and closed within a 12- to 15-hour window, which is just obscene,” he said.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on whether Google was subsidizing some or all of the Independent Journal Review’s polling using the tool. A spokesman for the news site reiterated that the team was excited to work with Google when asked if there was a financial aspect to the relationship.

Online polling has long faced skepticism. Because most Internet polls rely on self-selecting groups of respondents, obtaining a representative sample can be difficult. Some groups of people — including the elderly and the poor — are less likely to have access to the Internet, thus excluding them from samples, though Google specifies that its sample is representative of the population on the Internet.

Google says it can infer a person’s age and gender from their browsing history, using technology similar to what it uses to target advertisements, and can determine a person’s location based on their IP address. In the mobile application, users answer demographic questions. The data, coupled with careful poll design, can be used to craft a representative sample of the Internet population, the company says.

“Google Consumer Surveys selects potential responses for each survey using inferred demographic characteristics to get as close as possible to the census for the internet population,” said Cohen in a statement. “This ensures a representative and statistically significant sample.”  

Other Silicon Valley companies are also seeking a footprint in political polling.

SurveyMonkey hired Mark Blumenthal, a well-respected pollster and writer, away from The Huffington Post in October. SurveyMonkey has a partnership with NBC News to produce polls for the 2016 election.

Jon Cohen, SurveyMonkey’s vice president of survey research, said that the company is interested in working with others in the industry to determine a standard of what constitutes a high-quality online survey.

Sheldon said Google does have to fight against the idea that online polling is somehow less reliable than traditional phone-based polling. But she cast that debate in language familiar in the tech world: that of incumbents and forward-thinking disrupters.

“That’s probably some of my toughest competition is that mindset that traditional polling is traditional polling, and that’s the way it’s always been done,” Sheldon said. “And we’re certainly coming in and shaking up a very steady industry that has been established.”

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