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BP buys Google, Yahoo oil spill search terms

By Hibah Yousuf, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As BP continues to try to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the energy giant is also dealing with a public relations nightmare.

That's why the company is snapping up search phrases like "oil spill" and "oil spill claims" on Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) and Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500). The strategy, says a company spokeswoman, aims to "assist those who are most impacted and help them find the right forms and the right people quickly and effectively."

For instance, when a user searches "oil spill" on Google or Yahoo, there are millions of results -- but the first link on both search engines is a sponsored ad that leads to BP's "Gulf of Mexico response" page that provides resources and information about the spill.

"In any crisis response situation, one of the first things you do is look at what's happening on Google -- it's a pretty cut and dry tactical move," said Kent Jarrell, a senior vice president at Washington consulting firm APCO Worldwide who handles crisis management. "I do it with all of my clients, because if we aren't buying the terms, somebody else is."

And the advertisements are clearly highlighted as "sponsored links," said Terry Heymeyer, who teaches crisis management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Management. That means that users will know that they're clicking on a BP (BP) website, and can choose not to do so.

"Most companies that are smart are buying relevant search terms to increase their visibility on the Internet," he said. "As long as they are providing factual and timely information in a transparent way and doing interviews with other media sources as well, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be buying search terms."

While BP, Google and Yahoo declined to comment on how many search terms the company purchased or how much BP has spent on the advertisements, Yahoo spokeswoman Rachel Carr said ad words cost as little as 1 cent per user click and can go up from there. The cost depends on a combination of criteria, including the category of the search terms and the demand for them.

It may be standard operating procedure for companies in crisis to buy Internet search terms, but that didn't stop the company's critics from taking a stab at the strategy.

The mystery individual behind the fake BP PR Twitter account quipped: "We're paying Google a lot of money to make sure you only have access to the best possible info on the oil spill: our info."  To top of page

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