Be careful where you click, especially if you're looking for news on the BP oil spill.
BP, the very company responsible for the oil spill that is already the worst in U.S. history, has purchased several phrases on search engines such as Google and Yahoo so that the first result that shows up directs information seekers to the company's official website.
A simple Google search of "oil spill" turns up several thousand news results, but the first link, highlighted at the very top of the page, is from BP. "Learn more about how BP is helping," the link's tagline reads.
A spokesman for the company confirmed to ABC News that it had, in fact, bought these search terms to make information on the spill more accessible to the public.
"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," BP spokesman Toby Odone told ABC News.
But several search engine marketing experts are questioning BP's intentions, suggesting that controlling what the public finds when they look online for oil spill information is just another way for the company to try and rebuild the company's suffering public image.
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.
"If you look at it from BP's perspective it's a brilliant move," Ryan said. "The other option BP had was to just not do this and let the news interpret what's going on. "But they're getting so much bad press that directing traffic to their own site is a great PR strategy," he said.
Terms related to the spill, from "oil spill" to "gulf disaster" to "BP," have consistently remained in the list of most-searched terms on Google since the spill began in April. "If they're not buying that link that goes back to their message, they're kind of leaving the universe to kind of decide for itself," Ryan said. "It's actually pretty proactive for the brand."
On Google, paid results are awarded to the highest bidder.
Scott Slatin, an analyst who runs search engine marketing company Rivington in New York, estimates the company is paying upwards of $10,000 per day to maintain the various search terms.
"They paid to lock themselves into the first position against the oil spill terms, essentially putting a positive message on top of the news," Slatin said.
But for BP, who some have estimated will spend billions on cleanup from the spill, paying for these search terms is hardly significant. "In the grand scheme of doing damage control in a negative situation like this, keyword costs are very marginal," Ryan said.
Still, Ryan notes that no other companies that have gone through public relations nightmares, such as BP's, have thought to do anything similar. Toyota, for example, did not buy terms related to faulty brakes earlier this year. Instead, when users search "Toyota breaks" car dealerships pop up as well as other news results.
In addition to purchasing the search terms, BP also released a television ad earlier this week featuring CEO Tony Hayward. In it, Hayward stares directly into the camera and explicitly apologizes for the spill, saying, "BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the gulf."
"I'm deeply sorry," Hayward says.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal slammed BP for its PR efforts, saying in a statement, "Instead of BP shelling out $50 million on an ad campaign that promises to do good work in responding to this spill, BP should just focus on actually doing a good job and spend the $50 million on assistance to our people, our industries and our communities that are suffering as a result of this ongoing spill."
But BP's PR campaign doesn't seem to be slowing. They've hired the help of a high-profile agency, the Brunswick Group, as well as Purple Strategies, led by political consultant Steve McMahon and Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos.
Despite the criticism, Kevin Ryan, the CEO of California-based Motivity Marketing, says that BP's fierce PR campaign is smart. "The search terms, everything, it's probably not a bad idea for the company to do," he said. "Is it right? Is buying these terms ethical? That's another question."