Google searches are (as far as I know) purely a function of their algorithm.*  A company, for example, is not supposed to be able to pay Google to increase its rank in the results.  Google does, however, sell something on its search results page.  If a company buys a search term, when a person searches for that term, Google will place a “sponsored link” at the top of its results page that is discreetly identified as advertising.  See the upper right corner of the very gently shaded link that appears at the top of search results for the word “dell.”  This is advertising purchased by Dell computers:

Keith Marsalek at alerted me to the fact that British Petroleum (BP) has bought a bunch of search terms and phrases such that, when one searches for information about the oil spill, the first thing that comes up is BP’s public relations website (selection below).  They are hoping that internet users, whether they recognize that BP has bought the top slot or not, will read their version of events and, perhaps, only their version of events.

Read’s oil spill page instead.

UPDATE: To clarify, I’m not suggesting that this is surprising or that BP is uniquely evil in doing this.  I’m simply pointing out that money buys the power to shape the distribution of information.  Many of you have commented that “sponsored links” are ads and just skip right over them.  But others might not.  The link and the shading is very subtle.  Even if a person sees the phrase “sponsored link,” they might interpret it to mean that Google thinks it’s a good link, one they sponsored.  Not everyone is a sophisticated consumer of the internet.  And, even if they know it’s an ad, not everyone is as suspicious of ads, nor of companies, as some.  So I think buying the ad will, in fact, make it so that more people will be exposed to BP’s version than otherwise.  And that’s all I was trying to say.  It’s just a simple example of the relationship between power and knowledge.

* I know there is plenty of controversy over there algorithm as well.  Feel free to discuss that in the comments.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.