Is Google getting our TV license fee?

Recently the Mail on Sunday claimed that the BBC paid Google to appear first for keywords relating the Mercury Music prize. At first glance this appears underhand for 2 reasons:

  1. Google’s natural search algorithms should not allow people to pay for top natural search positions
  2. The BBC is spending OUR money on advertising

In order to get to the bottom of this, we first need to determine the difference between paid / sponsored listings and natural listings. The problem is that many journalists do not know the difference, and in particular, the Mail on Sunday journalist who brought this to our attention does not appear to know the difference. A sponsored listing is where you pay Google to have an advert displayed for a set of search terms, where-as a natural listing is where your website content is organically listed according to relevance.

Arguably Google’s biggest revenue stream is from sponsored listings, and there is no reason why Google should have a problem taking money from the BBC to purchase this service. It is after all, in Google’s eyes, just another business.

So that’s Google off the hook… What about the BBC then?

I have found a number of blog posts and articles written about this issue, and a lot of people feel passionately that the BBC should not be using the license payers’ money for advertising purposes.

When I researched further into this, I found out that the BBC did exactly the same thing in June to advertise their coverage of Glastonbury, so this is not something new. I suspect that the BBC has been doing this for a while to advertise big current events.

Personally, I do not have a problem with the BBC using a portion of their income to advertise their programmes. After all, the BBC may be funded by us, but they still need to compete with the other channels in order to provide us with the best quality programmes. What baffles me is why they need to use sponsored listings to advertise big events. The Google robots are more than capable of caching frequently updated content quickly, and with the BBC being the UK’s most prominent news site, the robots must visit this content multiple times each day. Or at least that’s what I thought…

To test this theory, I visited the BBC home page, took the title of one of their major stories and searched for it in Google. I was surprised to see that it appeared on the 2nd page behind a number of less well known news sites. Could it be that Google is giving less preference to the BBC in the natural search results so it can continue to persuade the BBC to send money on sponsored listings? Of course, I would never accuse Google of such underhand tactics! Perhaps the BBC just needs to spend more time on search engine optimisation instead of focusing its attention on sponsored listings. With a site of that magnitude and authority, and with such a large web team working behind the site, it would surely work out the cheaper option.