BP buys 'oil spill,' related Internet search terms to manage message

BP is paying for prime placement when people search for 'oil spill.' Public relations experts have criticized the practice as in poor taste.

By , Staff writer

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    BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward prepares to appear on a BBC television program on Sunday. His company purchased Internet search terms related to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Whether it’s a $50 million TV commercial blitz or BP CEO Tony Hayward snapping to a reporter that he wanted “his life back,” the company behind the nation’s worst oil disaster in history can’t seem to get its message right.

Now, the latest media misstep, according to media watchdogs and industry experts: the company has been buying up the top Internet search terms such as “oil spill” or “BP” – a move that places its corporate website at the top of search results pages.

“At minimum, this is in extremely poor taste in the midst of such a disaster,” says Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. But more important, she says, “it’s highly likely” that the average Internet user doing a search on any of the key terms associated with this spill would mistake the paid link for a genuine source of real information.

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“Most people assume when you do a search that the things that appear front and center are in some sense the most important,” says Fordham University media maven Paul Levinson. “The average person searching online isn’t aware of the fact that there are ways to manipulate the way things come up in searches,” he adds. The author of “New New Media” says he has never been comfortable with the idea that information placement was for sale on the Internet, adding, “Google ought to rethink its policy.”

Currently, anyone from a political candidate to a non-profit or business of any size can pay to “get its message in front of the public,” says Google spokesperson Sandra Heikkinen. The search engine giant “abides by the laws,” in any area in which it does business, she says, adding that the company exercises discretion within those bounds. Pricing ranges from pennies per click – meaning a user who actually goes to an advertised website – to many dollars, depending on the value at the moment. The marketplace sets that amount, points out Patrick Kerley, Senior Digital Strategist at Levick Strategic Communications. He explains that in any given search, placement is determined by “auctions,” conducted at light speed, and the top spot goes to the highest bidder.

While Houston-based BP spokesman Max McGahan says the company does not release figures on the cost of such buys, industry experts estimate the oil giant is spending anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per day, in what BP's Mr. McGahan calls the company's effort to get information quickly and efficiently to the public. While this amount is tiny in the context of the largest oil spill cleanup ever, the mere fact that the British firm is seen as trying to influence the information flow rather than being completely transparent and actively engaged in a dialogue with the affected individuals, reveals a profound tin ear for the situation, say PR professionals.

“This company keeps trying to shift into the mode of, 'let’s move on,’ ” says Michael Priem, CEO of USDM, an online advertising firm. “But we are so far from being anywhere close to that.” He says BP needs to stop the kinds of moves that suggest manipulation and self-seeking at a time of so much suffering. “They need to understand that this is not even an era of simple communication any more – it is a conversation.”

So far, BP has failed on both fronts, says Richard Laermer, author of “Punk Marketing,” a book about the changing relationships of companies and consumers. “BP’s links are some of the worst – they don’t explain or help the situation at all,” he says, adding that the practice of paying to direct information on the Internet is only growing and getting harder to detect.

“Five years ago,” he says, the paid links were easy to spot, but now “I trust very little in these searches.” Now, some 70 percent of search results are compromised in some way, he says.

“These days, he adds, “I almost always ask, ‘who paid for that?' ”

[Editor's note: The original version has been changed to clarify a quote from a Google representative.]

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