Don't Blame BP for Advertising on Google

Even if the Energy Giant's Search Strategy Is Clumsy, It's Better Than Nothing

By Published on .

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
There are volumes of text on the subject of what a brand is supposed to do in a crisis, but BP's gusher in the gulf isn't a crisis. It's full-blown environmental catastrophe, replete with oiled wildlife, broken lives and, at this point, no end in sight. The intensity of emotion driving the consuming public is too intense to measure. So what's a brand to do?

Beyond the obvious obligation it has to the people affected by the disaster, the company in question still has an obligation to its shareholders and its employees. Search serves as a barometer for human behavior and the human psyche. Where do people go when they need information now? Why, the search box of course. And that's where the trouble begins.

Keywords to the kingdom
Last week, a producer from ABC News called, wanting to talk about the latest round of BP mishegas. The energy company is apparently buying every possible iteration of keywords relating to and including "oil spill," and sending traffic to the BP website.

When the story ran a few days later, I was amazed at the sheer amount of hate mail in my inbox simply because I was quoted in the story. "How can I side with BP?" they asked. I'm not "siding" with BP, but I do appreciate the power of internet advertising. You should too.

We live in an age that has redefined brand interaction. Brands aren't selling products anymore. They are selling meaningful experiences for their customers. Few are exactly sure how to make the connection yet, but meaningful interaction has to equal sales.

When something bad happens, all the work of building an experience lies in ruins. A company is usually left with a logo and massive public relations problem. Search is one key component of BP's damage control strategy, and a cross-section of the keywords used to interject BP's perspective are very telling.

The public searching for anything oil-spill related is likely to see BP's sponsored listings appearing for almost any combination of their name, including "British Petroleum," even though it has officially been changed to BP for some time.

Money, well spent
"Oil spill" is just the beginning. We the sophisticated digital marketing elite often forget just how specialized keyword advertising tools have become. Tools like dynamic keyword insertion and dynamic URL creation are great ways to personalize search advertising.

To a search marketing expert, it's pretty easy to see that BP is using both tools in its search marketing effort. When one searches for "oil spill," that keyword is picked up and dropped into the search advertising listing. Likewise, my search for coverage on "ABC News" displayed BP's web address with the extension "/abcnews." I wonder if a searcher could be confused by seeing ABC alongside BP in a web address.

In spite of regulatory guidelines or suggestions for labeling search ads as "sponsored" to help differentiate them from their editorial or natural listing cousins, popular (although I haven't seen any recently) research over the last decade consistently shows that people have trouble distinguishing ads from editorial listings.

Speculation about how much BP is spending on damage control search terms ranges from outrageous to downright ridiculous. Some say $50,000 per day, others 10 times that amount. At the end of the day, it is simply irresponsible to throw out a number. More importantly, attempting to predict the actual number of searches as interest ebbs and flows is just as difficult.

Most of the outrage about BP buying search terms stems from expressions of discontent in how money is being allocated. In other words, instead of buying search advertising, that money should be spent providing relief and settling lawsuits. Sure, one could argue that every penny should be spent on cleaning up the mess, but there is a valid argument to be made for buying ad space.

Lawyers, guns and Twitter
Let's consider for a moment what would be appearing if BP weren't directing traffic into their clean-up efforts page. The energy giant is providing information about the work it is doing to help clean up the mess, telephone numbers to report affected wildlife and claims information.

If BP weren't providing this information, the only search listings you'd find would be from the blood sucking, bottom-feeding, carpet-bagging lawyers. If you think BP's interests are one-sided, I suggest you search again. If you think BP is capitalizing on consumer confusion, take a look at the slippery attorneys buying .org domains advertising "claims information."

Of course, if there were no statements from BP, the consuming public would be crying foul. One could also argue that if BP hadn't been proactive with online positioning, they would be doing themselves and the people they serve an injustice by leaving the search results and other online consumption venues to the wolves.

Remember, search results don't just contain website links anymore. There are videos, images and news. Anyone with internet access can put anything they want on the web, and it will appear in search results. To say that everyone disseminating content online has altruistic intentions is naive at best.

Option B
Those heartfelt messages we see from CEOs of companies whose products and services end up killing people are getting old. Outside the realm of disaster, those of us in the search marketing space have been preaching integration with PR efforts since the dawn of the search results page. It would have been great if the "how to" case study wasn't in one of the worst environmental disasters of all time.

When Toyota had their little problem earlier this year, the company was positioned at two of the top search ads. The CEO-apology reels could be seen in prime time television, YouTube and on Toyota's website. The only place you couldn't find the damage control was in the search listings.

In my opinion, continuing the existing campaigns and not giving up at least one paid listing for the benefit of informing the public was an enormous oversight. Even today, while the new Toyota safety campaign is saturating the airwaves, we see nothing directing consumers to content in the search results page, only ads to buy more Toyotas, with landing pages to match.

BP has photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube and search listings, along with mega TV in the works. Considering the media and production costs of traditional advertising, search might be cheaper, and it's certainly ready at a moment's notice. If anything, BP's search campaign could use more than a little tweaking.

A better train wreck
My issue with BP's online presence is less about spending the money and more about using search as a true information delivery vehicle.

If I were managing the BP information initiative, I'd skip the wholesale dynamic keyword and web address insertion tools in lieu of a more genuinely managed information delivery program. I'd link to the relevant content I've built and helpful information instead of sending every searcher into the same page. I'd use the ad dollars to truly help people find what they are looking for instead of sending them to a catch-all page.

The damage BP has done to the environment is inexcusable, no question about it. Our dependence on fossil fuels is deplorable; can't argue that one. When the fit hits the shan for a brand, said brand has an obligation to inform the people, and sometimes that includes buying ads.

Kevin M. Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting and project management firm Motivity Marketing. He tweets at @KevinMRyan.
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