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Is It Ethical For BP To Buy Oil-Spill-Related Google Search Terms?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Tuesday June 8th, 2010 | 19 Comments

Do me a favor before you read the rest of this post. Type in the search terms “oil spill” in either Google, Yahoo or Bing. Did you notice the highlighted website which comes up on top of the search page? In case you did not, what comes up on top is BP’s website devoted to the oil spill with the tagline: Info about the Gulf of Mexico Spill Learn More about How BP is Helping.” If you did not notice, you are most likely not the only one. Kevin Ryan, CEO of Motivity Marketing said research shows most people cannot tell the different between a paid result page and an actual news page.

Tony Odone, spokesperson for BP told ABC News that it bought the search terms:

We have bought search terms on search engines like Google to make it easier for people to find out more about our efforts in the Gulf and make it easier for people to find key links to information on filing claims, reporting oil on the beach and signing up to volunteer.


Another BP spokesperson, Robert Wine, told The Fiscal Times:

Yes, you’re right, we have been buying up search terms. We’ve tried to pick terms which will help the people who are most directly affected in the Gulf coast states with information about how to get in touch with us and make claims for loss of earnings…The main aim is a marketing tool, to help the people who are most directly affected — fishermen, local businesses, volunteers in the cleanup. We want people to be able to find us, so we can work out how to minimize the impact on their lives and businesses.

It’s a good public relations move, experts say. Ryan acknowledged that from BP’s perspective “it’s a brilliant move.” He said BP’s other option “was to just not do this and let the news interpret what’s going on.” He added that because BP is receiving “so much bad press” buying search terms so traffic is directed to their site is “a great PR strategy.” He called the move “proactive.”

Scott Slatin, an analyst who runs the search engine marketing company Rivington said,  “They paid to lock themselves into the first position against the oil spill terms, essentially putting a positive message on top of the news.”

Kent Jarrell, senior vice president at the consulting firm APCO Worldwide, said, “I do it with all of my clients, because if we aren’t buying the terms, somebody else is.”

How ethical is it for BP to ensure its website is at the top of a search page? Considering the Center for Pubic Integrity’s analysis of BP’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations, not to mention the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it sounds rather Orwellian. According to the Center’s analysis, two BP owned refineries account for 97 percent of all “flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years.”

After BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery exploded in March 2005, killing 15 workers, OSHA launched an investigation. In June 2007 BP launched a nationwide refinery inspection program. BP had 862 citations between June 2007 and February 2010 for alleged violations at both its Texas City refinery and Toledo, Ohio refinery. Almost all alleged violations were of OSHA’s process safety management standard, which the Center characterizes as a “sweeping rule governing everything from storage of flammable liquids to emergency shutdown systems.”

What do you think about BP buying search terms? If you have an opinion on the subject, leave a comment below.


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  • http://wwwthezone.yolasite.com joe tophead

    cool

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

    I'm mostly annoyed because the site BP directs you to is more PR fluff than actual news. I checked it out yesterday and couldn't answer any of my questions.

  • nickaster

    I say good for Google, they'll make some money of this one. It's not like BP is trying to hide the fact that it's advertising. The URL is clearly BP and the linked website even more obvious. That said, I'm not sure it's a good place to be spending their money right now – it might be better spent on cleanup, but given the size of the company I'm not surprised they're doing this.

    Whether it reflects on them as a frivolous face saving maneuver when there are more important things to be dealing with…. no so sure :-)

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  • http://twitter.com/SativaBella Monika Runstrom

    It makes me wonder how much money they will end up spending on search engine ads that should have been spent on the actual cleanup of oil.

    I wouldn't say that BP buying these ads are necessarily unethical, but I do agree that it is misleading as most people who are looking for news on this subject will not realize that they have just clicked on the ad for BP that just contains press releases and fluff.

    The website that BP created is also quite confusing and I personally think it is lacking information on that main splash page. The text says nothing really (“Gulf of Mexico Response” – I mean is the Gulf responding? who is responding?) and the changing images are distracting and slightly confusing. Also the section “Latest News” is misleading because it just links to their latest press release, which is not really news.

    We will likely never know how much this ad campaign cost, but it would be interesting to see if it is worth it.

  • Ronnie Roaster

    Well, if you don't like BP – Time to start clicking those ads! :-)

    • http://twitter.com/SativaBella Monika Runstrom

      That was my original thought too, but really I would prefer they take that ad money and use it towards cleaning up!

  • nickaster

    Here's an idea – how about Google donates the profits from those ads to some kind of oil-spill related cause? Google looks good, BP pays for it.

  • Done321

    I agree nickaster, Google should man-up and make public the money paid and double that and send to the Gulf…this one is on Google.

  • jstreet

    Not unethical. BP deserves to be treated like a pariah, but fairly representing themselves via paid search terms is no big deal.

  • SteveH

    Google and Yahoo should put up real public service information alongside BP's ad-placements and make it part of the deal that BP can't whine about it. Marketing has its place, but this is not one of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=127738057249291 t-bone

    Convince Google to Donate Proceeds from BP Ads to the Gulf Cleanup Effort http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=127738057

  • http://www.greenzu.com Julie

    I find it ironic that BP's move to purchase oil-spill google search terms highlights the inequity of Google favoring companies and websites that can pay out rather than delivering unbiasedly relevant websites. makes you wonder a little bit how many good online resources we are missing out on simply because they cannot win over Google's favor…

    I think the proposal to have Google donate some proceeds to the Gulf is a great idea, especially since Google's “do-good” image has been deteriorating a little as of late.

    -Julie
    Save Money, Save the Planet, at Greenzu.com
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    • nickaster

      Google is pretty clear about which ads are paid and which are organic

  • Sherle

    the fishermen who have taken employment to clean up the gulf, had to sign up for a program that BP named”the vessels of opportunity” I am offended for them.

  • Hank

    Shame you Google,
    You get morally self righteous with Red China censorship with their citizens and terminate your contract.

    Now you take B P money to allow them to maneuver (Censor) searchers from inquiry for truths about the world worst oil spill to B P's Public Relation SPIN and FLUFF.

    Let me offer you an analogy.
    Small Censorship or big Censorship is still CENSORSHIP, just as Soft Porn or Hard Porn is still Porn.

    Boy! You guys are really a bunch of hypocrites, because in the end it was all about the money!

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  • Jojo Potato

    How about we ask whether it's ethical for the search companies to sell results? It takes two to tango, and in this case all sides stink.

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  • http://www.markpack.org.uk/ Mark Pack

    Monika: if as you say people get confused between paid for search ads and organic news results, shouldn't the story really be able Google rather than BP?

  • http://www.markpack.org.uk/ Mark Pack

    Monika: if as you say people get confused between paid for search ads and organic news results, shouldn't the story really be able Google rather than BP?

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  • http://bobhiggins.wordpress.com/ Bob Higgins

    Never expect ethical behavior as the default from BP or any other major corporation. BP has a long and sordid history of ignoring safety, the environment, and human health for profit. No matter how many hundreds of millions they spend on feel good advertising they are not worthy of trust.