Intended to deceive


The ‘sphere is a-twitter about BP’s buying keywords (e.g., “oil spill”, “BP”, “gulf disaster”, etc.) to place links to their versions of the story at the top of the search results.  ABC News writes:

According to Kevin Ryan, the CEO of California-based Motivity Marketing, research shows that most people can’t tell the difference between a paid result pages, like the ones BP have, and actual news pages.

So we have two issues: one related to BP, and one related to the search engines.

BP’s side is pretty clear: they are already spending millions of dollars (small change) in a publicity campaign to detract from their mess, so a few search keywords at $10K/day is no big deal.

What’s more interesting about this is the rhetoric of search engines such as Google, who insist that sponsored links are necessary because they help users find information that for whatever reasons their organic results don’t surface.

We [Google] don’t allow ads to be displayed on our results pages unless they are relevant where they are shown. And we firmly believe that ads can provide useful information if, and only if, they are relevant to what you wish to find – so it’s possible that certain searches won’t lead to any ads at all.

[via Jeremy‘s link to the Google Philosophy page]

So people are outraged at BP for daring to put their message out, but are silent about the search engines’ complicity in this act. Yet not only is Google aiding and abetting BP in their efforts, but it is also profiting from the results.

A reasonable argument can be made that Google shouldn’t censor ads just because the advertiser is sleazy. Fair enough. But we are talking about the company that ran many studies to determine the exact shade of blue (apparently they tried 40 alternatives) to make its links to improve click through. They designed the placement and formatting of the sponsored links to increase the likelihood of those results being confused with the organic results that follow, while still retaining the plausible deniability that the link is an ad. The reason for this deceptive formatting is to encourage people to click on the links, thereby making Google money.  While this may not be technically evil, this particular set of advertisements casts Google’s policy in a rather unfavorable light.

The same tactic has also been employed by Yahoo! and Bing. Perhaps the search engines that take BP’s money to propagate their message in this artificial way should donate their revenues from these ads to help clean up the mess.


  1. “Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users … We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious … In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”

    Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual
    Web Search Engine”

  2. Looking at the tweets around this topic, it is clear that people do not differentiate between the ads displayed above the organic search results and the search results themselves. People write things like

    “Cyber-warfare BP-style: Company buys search terms to skew Google/Yahoo results”

    While it’s possible to tell them apart, in practice many people don’t pay enough attention or don’t have a clear mental model of what’s going on.

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