by Owen Gibson / The Guardian –
LONDON (January 26, 2004) — Just 48 hours before Lord Hutton delivers his verdict on the controversy surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly, the BBC has begun an advertising experiment that involves buying up all internet search terms relating to the inquiry.
Despite being one of the main players in the drama, anyone searching for “Hutton inquiry” or “Hutton report” on the UK’s most popular search engine Google is automatically directed to a paid-for link to BBC Online’s own news coverage of the inquiry.
No other news broadcaster or any newspaper has paid Google for this facility, leaving the corporation’s move even more conspicuous.
As one of the chief “interested parties” in the Hutton inquiry into the apparent suicide of Dr Kelly, the move will strike many as worthy of comment, not least because the BBC’s online news pages will not be the most obvious place to go for the most comprehensive coverage, which is bound to include painful criticism of the corporation.
It will also raise questions about the use of licence payers’ money at a time when the corporation faces criticism for spending so much money online from private rivals including the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times newspapers.
Through Google’s Ad Words service advertisers can bid to buy up search terms that relate to their business. The more they bid, the higher up their link is shown on the right-hand side of the page next to Google’s normal results sorted by relevancy.
The chain of events that led to Dr Kelly’s apparent suicide began with Andrew Gilligan’s report on the Radio 4’s Today programme alleging that the government had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier on Iraq and sparking the corporation’s bitter row with the government.
Despite the sensitive climate surrounding the publication of Lord Hutton’s report, the BBC’s marketing department has decided to focus on the BBC website’s in-depth coverage of the inquiry as part of a drive to attract new users.
The BBC is experimenting for the first time with paid-for search advertising, a relatively new form of new media marketing that has given a fillip to internet companies.
Last week internet giant Yahoo! ascribed most of its 62% rise in profits to its purchase of paid-for search company Overture.
Overture and UK company E-Spotting are the main players, while search giant Google offers its own version through Ad Words. In all cases, advertisers bid for key words but only pay when a searcher clicks on the link.
And because the listing is only displayed when a user searches for a specific term, the medium boasts a much higher “click-through rate” than other forms of online advertising.
The two-week trial will come out of the BBC’s £63.5m annual marketing budget and a BBC spokesman said that, if successful, the trial would be extended. He added that the corporation was bidding on a number of search terms relating to its news and sports coverage in an effort to drive users to in depth content that they might otherwise miss.
“The idea behind it is to attract people that would not normally come to BBC.co.uk and add to our 8.4 million existing monthly users. It’s very cost effective because we’re appealing to people who are already online and looking for information on a specific subject,” said the spokesman.