Owen Gibson

Media Guardian Monday 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.

· To contact the MediaGuardian newsdesk email editor@mediaguardian.co.uk or phone 020 7239 9857


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Now, as a licence fee payer, I just don’t think that this is a proper use. Especially on this occassion, in that they are a criticised organisation, in the report.

I have just written the following letter in complaint.

I let you know, dear readers, of the reply.

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Letter of complaint to BBC: Hutton Report / BBC buys Google links


I am looking for information, on how i might make a complaint about the BBC, in respect of the item covered in this article.


Hutton report BBC buys up ‘Hutton inquiry’ Google links

Owen Gibson

Monday January 26, 2004

Just 48 hours before Lord Hutton delivers his verdict on the controversy


The information, contained in the article appears correct, and have just conducted a search for the Hutton Report using Google and am returned lots of BBC links on the subject, when I might have been expecting the Hutton Report itself to be at the top.

Bearing in mind the findings of the report, just published, and that there is much Criticism of the BBC contained therein. It seemed reasonable suppose that a search might have been less partial. I now realise otherwise.

As a licence fee payer, I feel the use of funds to angle my enquiry to your sites, rather that the impartial / original information I was looking for, is an abuse and I would like to make a complaint. I note that other pages, were I might complain, are programme specific. With this in mind, I use this form, and trust that either my comments will be dealt with directly, or, forwarded to those in a position to consider such a complaint.

If neither is true, would you please reply, giving me details of the correct procedure for me to follow?

I thank you for your assistance with this matter.

Alan Lodge


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This the BBC reply, just arrived in.

Dear Mr. Lodge

Thank you for your email. We hope that the information below helps to answer

the points you raise regarding the business relationship between Google and

the BBC, and Google’s search results for the Hutton Report.

Firstly, in response to your question about contacting the BBC: the best way

to contact us with general comments and complaints is via our “About the

BBC” site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/contactus/form.shtml . If you believe

that the BBC is in breach of its Producers Guidelines then you may wish to

make a serious complaint. Information on doing so is captured here:


The paid-for search to which you refer was a temporary trial which the BBC

undertook from the 13th to the 27th of January. It is worth noting that the

Hutton Report was released after this trial had ended. The endeavour was

purely a marketing tool, and covered a variety of search engines and a

variety of topical subjects – including, for instance, such search terms as

“Elgin Marbles.” The aim of the campaign was purely and simply to encourage

new users to visit http://www.bbc.co.uk.

The BBC does advertise its programmes and services via a wide variety of

media – for instance poster sites and newspapers/magazines. It does so under

the belief that it is important to let as many licence fee payers as

possible know about the output we are providing for them. Our research shows

that approximately 75% of licence fee payers appreciate being directed to

our services in this manner. This particular campaign was considered to be a

very cost-effective way of alerting new users to the variety of content

featured on BBCi.

These searches present a wide variety of results. Sponsored results are

clearly labelled, and often presented separately from standard results, for

instance in a different part of the page, highlighted in a tinted box. In

this case, the results were literally marked with the word “Sponsored.” It

is our belief that such transparency on the part of the search engines would

make any attempt at “skewing” the results in the manner you describe very

difficult indeed.

We hope that the information above helps to explain the circumstances around

the trial, and our intentions in highlighting our content via these means.

We can assure you that the intent was in no way an attempt to drive users

towards anything less than entirely impartial reporting of the events

covered by the Hutton Report. We would also draw your attention towards the

results of a search using the BBC’s own search engine, which return as the

first result the official website (http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/):



Thanks for taking the time to contact us with your feedback. Please rest

assured that we take your comments very seriously indeed, and appreciate

your taking the time to get in touch.


BBCi Customer Service