NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Before BP could stem the oil gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, it unleashed $100 million in ad spending, largely on network TV, to stem the damage to its image. But it also started spending heavily where it had never spent much before: buying ads in Google's search results.
How much did BP spend on search? In two months, BP went from spending very little on search advertising -- about $57,000 a month -- to becoming one of Google's top advertisers, dropping nearly $3.6 million in the month of June alone, according to an internal Google document obtained by Advertising Age. That pushed BP into the upper echelon of search advertisers, in a league with Expedia, which spent at least $5.9 million in June, Amazon, which spent at least $5.8 million, and eBay, which spent at least $4.2 million.
This is a significant outlay, even for BP, which spent $94 million on advertising in 2009, and $78.7 million in the first six months of 2010 alone (excluding search), according to Kantar Media. Search advertisers only pay when their ads convert or get a click, and in June the crisis was still at full-boil, driving clicks on BP's ads. But if BP kept spending at this rate, search would've become one of its bigger advertising line items by the end of the year, up there with network, cable or spot TV.
While the search-spending document obtained by Advertising Age is not a complete list of advertisers on Google, the accuracy of its data was verified by multiple sources with direct knowledge of spending levels. It's a revealing cross-section of Google's business that gives some clarity to one of the most opaque areas of ad spending, and the lifeblood of many American businesses.
BP's increase underscores how important Google has become for reputation management, and in the battle for public opinion. In the wake of the spill, Google was a natural first stop for people seeking information, and BP bought up dozens of keywords associated with the disaster such as "oil spill," "leak," "top kill" and "live feed" as it vied for clicks with news stories, images of oiled wildlife and plaintiff attorneys trolling for clients.
"Google has become the remote control for the world; it's the first stop, not TV," said Will Margiloff, CEO of Innovation Interactive, a unit of Denstu. "More than any other media, that messaging is requested; people are seeking BP's answers out as opposed to waiting to be told."
The steep acceleration of spending indicates BP opted for "broad match" keywords, meaning many combinations of "oil" or "spill" would trigger a BP search ad. BP also bought video search ads, which directed surfers to BP videos. BP declined to comment for this story.
Because it controls 65% of U.S. web searches, Google's complex algorithms determine more than any other factor what information is surfaced on the web. Google keeps a tight lid on its technology to keep people from gaming the system. Similarly, search ads are a black box; anyone can buy an ad on Google, but it is very hard to know how much anyone, let alone corporate America, spends there.
The exception to that is when Google starts its sales pitch. "The primary tactic Google uses to increase ad budgets is to show them what others in their category are spending compared to what they're spending," said Kevin Ryan, CEO of Motivity Marketing, a digital marketing consultancy.
Our review of $574 million of Google's U.S. billings over the first half of 2010 shows plenty of global corporations spending millions each month on search advertising, as well as a great many huge corporations that spend very little, if anything, at all on search.
"We can't comment on these figures because we haven't seen the document in question or determined what these numbers represent," said Dennis Woodside, VP of Google Americas Operations. "We're now looking into the possibility that someone improperly disclosed confidential information about our clients, and [we] will take all appropriate action."
At the time of the rig explosion in April, BP barely registered on Google, but neither did its big-oil peers; Exxon Mobile, the world's largest corporation by market cap, spent just $43,000 on search ads in June.
By comparison, one of Google's top advertisers that month, AT&T Mobile, spent more than $8 million on AdWords in June, a big month for the company, which was supporting the launch of iPhone 4. (AT&T is the third-largest U.S. advertiser, according to Ad Age DataCenter; it spent $2.8 billion on measured media -- almost $1.3 billion on TV alone -- in 2009. The company declined to comment on its search spending.) Other big June spenders included Apollo Group, the company behind The University of Phoenix, online travel site Expedia, eBay and Amazon, which all spent over $5 million apiece on search.
The data obtained by Ad Age includes huge brands such as GM, Walt Disney, Eastman Kodak and BMW, which appear to have spent less than $500,000 in June. Tech rival Apple spent just under $1 million on search during the month, as did chip maker Intel.
Among Google's biggest spenders are businesses that depend on search traffic, including those that resell AdWords or simply buy Google traffic to resell to their own advertisers, including Hungry Machine, which does business under the name Living Social, which spent $2.4 million in June, and Yellowpages.com, which spent $1.2 million.
As a snapshot, it's also remarkable that Google's biggest advertisers, big monthly spenders like AT&T, Apollo Group and Amazon, individually accounted for less than 1% of Google's U.S. revenue in June. The top 10 advertisers in the document collectively accounted for just 5% of Google's U.S. revenue during the month.
The accounts listed are distributed broadly in terms of spending levels. The document shows 47 advertisers that spent more than $1 million in June; 71 that spent between $500,000 and $1 million, and 357 that spent between $100,000 and $500,000. These are direct-billed customers only, not the many thousands of small self-serve advertisers that make up Google's long tail, a key component in its $23 billion global annual revenue.