Search term ethics

Since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, British Petroleum (BP) has provided an ample buffet of bungling and disinformation, but the latest assertion of corporate wrongdoing doesn’t pass the smell test.

Today’s angle is that BP is trying to redirect people searching for information on the oil disaster to its own Web site.

The Examiner leads the pitchfork brigade with today’s story:

In their most tenacious effort to control the ‘spin’ on the worst oil spill disaster in the history, BP has purchased top internet search engine words so they can re-direct people away from real news on the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

BP spokesman Toby Odone confirmed to ABC News that the oil giant had in fact bought internet search terms. So now when someone searches the words ‘oil spill’, on the internet, the top link will re-direct them to BP’s official company website.

But all BP is buying is the “sponsored link” at the top of its search results, a box most people ignore anyway.


“Most companies that are smart are buying relevant search terms to increase their visibility on the Internet,” Terry Heymeyer, who teaches crisis management at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Management told CNN. “As long as they are providing factual and timely information in a transparent way and doing interviews with other media sources as well, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be buying search terms.”

  • Jon

    If most people ignore it, Then how is Google making money off of it hand over fist?

    I don’t think this is a terrible crime, any one on the internet can see it was a “sponsored link” and any one looking for unbiased information should know they aren’t likely to get it at all. Though the probability drops to zero when it is from

    The real question is how many people fail to look at if it’s a sponsored link, or what address they are at on the internet, how many people actually consider the source? Perhaps the real dilemma isn’t What BP is doing for PR, but how much B.S. people are willing to believe…

  • Bob Collins

    Like most banner ads, they’re paid by the click. But most people don’t click online ads. In fact, some studies show a bias against anything in the upper positions on certain pages were banner ads are found.

    To me, it’s stretching credibility to believe that people — especially those who are smart enough to use google and who want to know more about the news and actively search for it — are too stupid to know they’re clicking on a link that’s a sponsored link, in a yellow-shaded box, that says “sponsored link,” and an indicated URL that says “”

    At some point, I think we have to give people credit for being smart enough to know what they’re doing.

  • TJ

    It’s just more pollution of the information stream with marketing BS. I really wonder some days how much time and energy we waste daily trying to figure out how much of the the information and messages we receive every day are manipulations and deceit.

    It’s a sign of being a rube or an idiot to trust too much. What does that say about our culture?

  • @Jon, a top positioned ad like that tends to draw around a 5-20% click through rate, depending on how compelling the ad’s copy is, how relevant other content on the page appears to be, etc. So, as Bob points out, the majority do not click the link. And, of those who do, a certain percentage may arrive at BP’s take on things, only to hit the back button to check other sources.

    In this case, it’s possible that the breaking news headlines served by Google on a newsworthy topic like this may appeal to people more than a more static pressroom style of promotion by BP.

    Also, it looks like companies in the oil spill cleanup business are buying “oil spill” related terms, so one could say that they’re attempting to profit off the spill as well.

    It seems like NOT doing this would be irresponsible for a company that understands people will turn to the web for information.

  • KRJ

    The algorithm used by google is called PageRank, this is a weighted voting scenario that uses links from one page to another as ‘votes’ for a website to show up on the top of their search results. A good explanation from wikipedia is at:

    So the more people that do stories on BP and include their web address in their webpages, the faster BP’s site will start to move to the top of the search results.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t use the “Web” tab when searching for news on Google. I use the “news” tab. I can see no situation where a company’s Web site would rise to the top of search results under that tab. I suppose it MIGHT be possible, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it.

  • @KRJ, the highlighted links at the top of the page are paid spots (along with the ones that run down the right column). They’re purchased through Google’s AdWords program, which is how Google makes the vast majority of their revenue. Your description of PageRank is accurate, but it only influences the results in the main body of the page.

    Bob, a lot of people go directly to the News tab, but it’s becoming less necessary on truly breaking news since Google’s getting pretty good at detecting if a given search is related to something that’s in the news. In those cases, they bring a sampling of stories directly to the Web results. They also bring in Tweets, photos, video, etc., when they think they have relevant content.