Howard Fineman, BP and Google’s Search Algorithm: How Mr. Fineman Got It Wrong on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown

I have a confession to make. Every day at work, I shove some headphones on and listen to podcasts while I work. This American Life, Stuff You Missed In History Class, and Car Talk, of COURSE Car Talk (nothing but love for those guys), but also The Rachel Maddow Show and Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. That probably says more than you needed to know about my political leanings, but this post isn’t about politics. Not exactly, anyway.

Today I was buzzing right along with my client work, listening to yesterday’s Countdown episode, only half listening as I pretty much always do. Keith Olbermann and his guest, Howard Fineman were discussing BP’s pay-per-click campaign on Google Adwords, which, as an SEO, caught my attention – but still, BP’s sponsored listing on Google was already old news in my industry and I didn’t figure they would have anything new or particularly insightful to say about it.

But then Howard Fineman, Newsweek’s Chief Political Correspondent, Senior Editor and Deputy Washington  Bureau Chief, said something so completely ludicrous and stupid that I stopped what I was doing to rewind it, listen to it again to make sure I heard it right, then rewound it several times more so I could transcribe it accurately.

Howard Fineman ain't no SEO“A couple things about the searches on Google and Yahoo. It’s not just that thing you show there, Keith, it’s not just the sponsored link at the top. I was fooling around with it this afternoon – they’re buying the Google algorithm, they’re not just buying that first thing up top. If you put in all kinds of other combinations, and you do the search, the top several responses you get in the unhighlighted area that’s supposedly the journalistic area, also takes you directly to the BP page. So I think there are questions to be asked about how that whole thing’s working, number one.”

(The comments begin at roughly the 14:20 mark. The bolding is mine.)

My jaw dropped. One of Newsweek’s top journalists, usually brimming with journalistic integrity, was weaving a conspiracy theory out of a complete lack of understanding of even the most fundamental search principles. It’s perfectly obvious to me from the text of his statement precisely why he was seeing BP.com surface repeatedly in his search results.

Mr. Fineman, listen up. You’re about to get schooled in “How Google Works 101″.

Choice of Search Phrase

A quick search for “oil spill” yields the infamous sponsored listing, but BP doesn’t surface in Google on my computer until page two. “Gulf of Mexico oil spill” likewise doesn’t land BP on the first page of organic results; they’re not found until halfway down page two. And that’s just on my own workstation. Spot checking a few other computers in the office, BP’s URL isn’t found at all in the first five pages of organic results thanks to personalized search, which I’ll discuss separately from keyword choice.

I’m guessing that at least some of his search queries included “BP oil spill”, “BP spill”, and other keyword phrases including “BP”. To test my theory, I used Google’s Wonder Wheel to generate common search phrases related to “oil spill” and “BP oil spill”. I then checked BP’s organic position in Google with regards to those search terms.

The result? BP keywords always brought BP.com up on the first page, and most often as the first organic result. Searches which did not include “BP” in the search phrase at best put BP on the second page and in many cases didn’t surface an organic result anywhere in the first five pages.

Where Howard Fineman got it wrong: He may have included “BP” in the search query, and therefore Google quite reasonably delivered the URL for the company included in the search phrase. If you ask for it, Google will do its damndest to deliver it.

Personalized Search

However, keyword choice is not the only contributing factor. Remember when I mentioned that while my own computer put BP.com on page 2, other computers checked around the office didn’t show it anywhere in the first five pages of organic results. How can this be?

Your answer here is personalized search. Google quietly tracks your browser history and then delivers results based on your unique web surfing patterns. If you’ve been to a certain website before, Google may kick it up a few places in the organic results on the reasonable assumption that you may be trying to find it again.

Where Howard Fineman got it wrong: As a journalist investigating BP, Mr. Fineman doubtlessly was plunking all sorts of BP-related search phrases into Google and visiting dozens of BP-related web sites. By the time he got around to spending a few minutes fretting and fuming about BP’s organic search position, his search history was littered with BP oil spill sites and documents. Therefore, searching for any keyword even remotely related to that topic surfaced BP.com, as well as other sites Google has seen him repeatedly visit. If he’d tried the same searches on a computer with no spill-related search history, the URL placement would more closely resemble my own results.

Query Deserves Freshness

What do BP and Michael Jackson have in common? Michael Jackson’s death was one of the big events which brought the “Query Deserves Freshness” concept to the forefront. If a news event is so big that it’s likely to see a high volume of search results before the algorithms would normally update the information, then Google (and other search engines) can essentially flip a switch which instructs the algo to update the latest news about the BP oil spill more quickly than it does about, say, high school marching band competitions. Hence, we see extremely recent news results and a scrolling feed from Twitter with comments about the spill.

Where Howard Fineman got it wrong: Mistaking the organic results and QDF display for a news feed. News results are almost always displayed above the organic results, and should never include articles published on BP.com since Google News results display, well, news. Only Google decides which sites qualify. Remember last year’s debacle with Rupert Murdoch? If any random corporation could get its own Google News feed, don’t you think we’d all have done it by now?

Inbound Links

One of the reasons BP.com is enjoying such a prominent search position right now is because of all the media attention it is receiving. Yahoo! Site Explorer shows 491,445 domains linking to BP.com. All of those shaming news articles are linking to the site, and the first few pages of backlinks read like a who’s who of journalism’s heaviest heavy hitters. The number of inbound links, as well as the site authority of the domains from which those links are coming, serve as a signal of site authority and quality.

Where Howard Fineman got it wrong: As a journalist, Mr. Fineman is one of many feeding the dragon. It may only be a bite, but many bites from many hands make a banquet. If you’re angry about BP.com showing up in your organic search results, stop linking to them. The very fact that they are in the news is why they have such high placement.

Google AdWords vs. Organic Search Results

Yes, BP used Google AdWords to buy a sponsored link. Honestly, I was rather impressed that their public relations people had enough web marketing chops to come up with the idea. While the rest of the world is furious, I shrugged my shoulders at the whole thing. Honestly, who cares? When I asked PPC Specialist Graham Swalling about the minimum bid in AdWords for “oil spill”, he guessed it to be at about thirty cents per click based on the lack of big companies competing for the term. (Hint: BP isn’t the only Adwords ad; everything in that far right column is bidding on the term as well, and it doesn’t look all that competitive.)

Where Howard Fineman got it wrong: While you can buy AdWords advertising, you cannot, I repeat, CANNOT buy placement in the organic results. That’s the whole point of natural, organic results! It’s not “supposedly journalistic” – that’s what the news feed is for.

Google’s organic search results are determined by more than 200 signals, including those I’ve highlighted above, and search results are further complicated by the fact that Google tweaks its algo an average of 300-400 times annually. If BP is at the top of every page of your organic oil spill search results, it’s because of a combination of these. There is no shady business here, Mr. Fineman – just a very sophisticated search algorithm and a journalist who should have called an SEO for insight before launching into a conspiracy theory on national television.

24 Responses to “Howard Fineman, BP and Google’s Search Algorithm: How Mr. Fineman Got It Wrong on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown”

  1. John Says:

    I work to Keith and Rachel as well. I heard that today and was thinking “Either Google has totally switched their business and search engine model, or he doesn’t know how to use google.” did BP buy a lot of buzz words and ask to be “higher” in result standings? Probably, but when it comes to the non-solicited feeds, They can’t do jack.

  2. Orb Says:

    Glad I am not the only one who noticed that. My husband was watching Olbermann in the living room, and I was barely listening until I thought I heard someone say BP had bought Google’s algorithm. Surely I didn’t hear that, so I made my husband rewind it, and sure enough Fineman did say that. I’m not even in any internet industry, but I know how Google works. Ugh.

    You have a fantastic explanation (much better than mine). I’m going to link to your post in mine for those who really want an in-depth explanation.

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