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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Time was, when a company wanted to control the message, that meant buying ads on the op-ed page or producing TV spots full of sunlit landscapes and corporate scientists in white lab coats, laboring for a better tomorrow.How 20th century can you get?

In a contemporary version of message control, BP has bought the rights to be the first link you get when you search for oil spill and similar terms on Google and Yahoo. And some of the law firms that would like to represent plaintiffs against BP are doing something similar.

Joining us now is Danny Sullivan, who is editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com, a website that follows the search engine industry. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DANNY SULLIVAN (Editor-in-chief, SearchEngineLand.com): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And here's what happened. I searched today on Google for oil spill, and the first item that comes up is www.bp.com, oil spill news and info about the Gulf of Mexico spill. Learn more about how BP is helping. And it's a sponsored link. What's going on here?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, Google allows people to buy ads, and BP wants to make sure that if you're doing a search for their name, or things that are related to their name, that they are getting out in front of the consumer in the way they might run a big, huge ad in - say, the Wall Street Journal. This is how things are done in the Internet.

SIEGEL: Do we know just which terms they've bought from Google - or Yahoo, for that matter?

Mr. SULLIVAN: From what we've seen, they seem to be targeting a wide variety of them. It looks as they may be targeting perhaps any term that contains the letters BP in it. So BP oil spill, BP I love you, BP I hate you - all those things, potentially, could be triggering their ads.

SIEGEL: Is it an expensive buy? Do we have any idea what they might have paid for such a privilege?

Mr. SULLIVAN: We haven't had a chance to try to drill down on exactly how much they might be paying per click, and it's difficult to know. But it's thousands -if not hundreds of thousands - of dollars over the campaign, almost certainly.

SIEGEL: Now, when I see the BP ad at the top of my search results, it does say sponsored link. That's supposed to tell me this isn't a straight search you're getting here?

Mr. SULLIVAN: That's it exactly. That's a longstanding feature on Google and all the other major search engines. And in fact, it's a guideline that the FTC helped recommend to the major search engines back in 2003, 2004.

There was a concern, when ads started coming into the search results, that people might not understand what was paid for and what wasn't paid for.

SIEGEL: Now, guided by what I read on your website, on SearchEngineLand.com, I searched on Google again for oil spill lawsuit, and the first three answers all were sponsored links. One of them is oilspill.com, we represent businesses that have incurred damages. Another, thegulfcoastoilspill.com, was your property or business harmed by the BP oil spill? And another one was gulfcoastoildisaster, if the oil spill has cost you money, contact us for a free consultation.

So again, the law firms have bought into this business.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, there are many people out there waiting to help you, so call now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, the law firms have gone out there. It's not necessarily new. Law firms have done this. And in fact, a longstanding example was for searches for mesothelioma, where the damages are apparently very high. And so now we have a case where, you know, these law firms know that there are people out there who want to sue BP, and they're trying to reach out to them as they - come get them.

And it's interesting, in our article, I kind of called it sort of the new age ambulance chasing. And I had a couple lawyers take me to task, perhaps rightly because, you know, there are lawyers who are out there trying to provide a service, as well.

But it is a sign of how things continue to change. They are not only putting up -apparently - billboards in the area, trying to attract people, but they're putting up virtual billboards on Google and the other search engines as well.

SIEGEL: Does the advertising in any way affect the other items that come up, that aren't sponsored links?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Google is steadfast in saying that advertising does not influence their editorial results, the unpaid results that they list. I have never seen any evidence that it does. I've had a few people at times try to suggest that it does. Whenever I've looked at it, it really hasn't held up. They really say that they maintain a church-and-state separation in that, and it seems to be the case.

SIEGEL: Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you very much for having me.

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