Is the BBC paying for its Google rankings?

Mon 14 September 2009 15:50, Bas van den Beld

Is the BBC paying for its Google rankings?

The BBC is one of the biggest players in the UK online market. Last weeks numbers at Hitwise show the BBC Homepage is the 8th most visited site in the UK for the past four weeks. With BBC News and BBC Sport also in the top 20 it is clear the BBC is getting a lot of traffic.

No doubt a lot of the traffic is coming from Google. According to the Mail on Sunday the BBC is however paying Google to get on top in the search results on specific search terms. The story has been going around this weekend, but its a bit uncertain if its true. Some blogs and sites are referring to it, but the 'real proof' for now isn't there. Still, if the rumor would be true, it would be a big thing. It could however very well be another case of a reporter not knowing the difference between an organic or a paid result.

The newspaper is said to have claimed that Google is financing the keywords-buying with money which is reserved for their marketing spend, which in total is about £100m (about 113m euros).

One of the things most search marketers will (and should) tell their clients is that a top result in Google cannot be bought. Therefore the news is quite surprising. There are rumors that in some cases deals can be made with Google, but there hasn't been any real proof. BBC had a deal before with Google, where they had put up content on YouTube.

And not just the fact that Google would be selling the top positions is big, its also who is buying the positions. The BBC is a publicly funded company. It is therefore money from the British public which going straight into Google's pockets.

The fact that the BBC might be buying the high positions should be seen in perspective though. As Bigmouthmedia points out on their blog, the BBC was ensuring that it was going to be "the first news source for information on topics such as the Mercury Music Prize winner." This means its probably about news-results, not the general organic ones. 

That could make a difference. However Google and the BBC should be clear on this matter, which for now they are not. If they speak out they can at least take away the hint of 'fraud'.

It is said that the BBC only told the Mail on Sunday "Promoting content like the Mercury Prize online is an effective way to inform the licence-fee payers who will want to watch it or read about it".

It could however 'only' be about the BBC advertising with Google. Looking at the search term "Mercury Prize" (one of the alleged bought keywords) the BBC 'only' shows up at the number four spots and not in the news results, so maybe they just put up an ad? It wouldn't be the first time a reporter can't tell the difference between PPC and organic. Sources so far are scarce so we'll have to wait and see if anything new on this subject will come up or that it has just been someone who didn't know better...

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