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

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.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by