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General News    H3'ed 6/9/10

Google Adwords, British Petroleum, and the Public Relations Strategy of Buying up Search Terms

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Message Ross McNamara

Working for a search engine optimization (SEO) company this summer, I've had a chance to get pretty well acquainted with Google's Adwords program. I've grown accustomed to checking different search queries to see what different spots Adwords ads are displaying in. However, I am not used to seeing "Adwords" come up as a trending topic on the news sites. It seems BP certainly has a knack for being behind trending topics things these days. Something I am guessing that they would rather not be linked to.

The current hubbub, not to downplay the horrific oil spill at all, seems to mostly revolve around British Petroleum having purchased an ad for the search term "oil spill" on the various major search engines, Google, Yahoo, and Bing. When users search anything using those two terms, the number one position goes to BP an ad telling you to click and find out how they are helping fix the problem (see the screenshot below).

From my perspective, the complaints being raised don't hold much water and that anger could be better focused in other more productive areas. In general, the Google user complaints about what BP is doing, which essentially amounts to a search engine public relations damage control strategy, seems to fall into three main categories.

1. Complaining that a page about how BP is helping should not rank first in the search engines for a search about the oil spill. This one is easy. These people don't understand that sponsored links are" sponsored (paid) ads. To help clarify this, Google has, since Adwords began, included the words "sponsored links" next to their listings that do not occur naturally but rather achieve a particular position based on how much you are willing to pay Google.

2. Complaining that Google shouldn't allow BP to take over the number one Adwords spot, instead of allowing environmental groups or anti-BP organizations first crack at getting their word out on the search engines. Remember Google vs China? How most agreed Google was right to not allow censoring of thoughts and ideas. Well, they're still right. And in the marketplace system they've created for Adwords, making any exceptions to the bidding rules is a slippery slope. BP is only dominating one out of the at least 10 spots on each page that can be occupied within the Adwords system. This means any other activist group, environmental advocacy group, or even an anti-BP group can just as easily create an Adwords campaign and counter BP's message with their own message. In fact the company that I work for and just about any SEO company would be more than happy to help with this process.

3. Complaining that BP is using their money poorly. Here's one that makes some sense. Rather than buying up Adwords ads, they could instead use their money to solve the problem. I agree for the most part on this complaint. But I suppose to them, not only do they want to fix the oil leak, they also want to have jobs after they fix the oil leak. So a little (or a ton) of PR in their eyes means the money they are (and should be) spending on the oil situation is also minimizing to some extent the massive damage to their brand that has already occurred from this man-made disaster.

The issue here has nothing to do with Google, other than the fact that the ads are appearing through their marketplace. If there's one thing I learned from passing all those Adword Tests for my Minneapolis SEO company , unless an ad violates trademark or copyright law, there is no reason for Google to get involved. A company or individual can spend whatever they want to advertise whatever ideas they want (within obvious Google guidelines), and Google's users can decide which information they want to click on.

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Ross works and eats in Minnesota.
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