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An article in the Mail on Sunday yesterday sensationally 'revealed' that the BBC is "paying Google to top its search results" for high traffic keywords such as the Mercury Music Prize. This has provoked a few gasps amongst the search community that the Beeb is somehow buying search positions in some sort of shady deal with Google, using some of it's £100m marketing budget.
To me it's pretty clear: the Mail reporter, whether out of stupidity or a cynical attempt to spin a story out of nothing, has failed to understand that, erm, anyone can pay for search positions in Google - ITS CALLED ADWORDS. Nowhere in this article did it explain the difference between paid and organic search results, nor did it make clear that the BBC were somehow paying for natural search positions.
When you go beyond this misunderstanding, deliberate or not, it boils down to "Scandal! BBC Spends Our Money On Marketing!" The implication that the BBC shouldn't be using public money on marketing such as paid search is ridiculous - it's a bit like saying charities shouldn't take out newspaper ads or the Department of Health shouldn't spend money on sending direct mail about preventing the spread of swine flu. Paid search is another form of marketing, and frankly, its a lot more targeted and effective than most other forms of marketing.
For me, however, the interesting part of this story was in the quote from the BBC:
Promoting content like the Mercury Prize online is an effective way to inform the licence fee payers who will want to watch it or read about it,' the Corporation said. 'The BBC has an annual budget for marketing and value for money is at the heart of how decisions are made about spending it.
To me this says that the BBC are looking at search as a medium, and looking for the most value for money from their marketing budget.
Well, a quick Google search of "mercury music prize" shows the following results:
Behind the official Mercury site and the ubiquitous Wikipedia entry, we have the Telegraph and the Guardian's coverage leading the pack with two entries each, with the BBC languishing towards the bottom of the page with a listing about LAST YEAR's Mercury Prize winners!
Clearly the Beeb are missing a trick here. Both the Guardian and the Telegraph are noted for their SEO efforts and this result shows the investment is paying off. Contrast this with the BBC - one of the most authoritative sites on the web, they should really have the power to outrank Wikipedia if they did things right. But instead they haven't even got their basic architecture right to flow PageRank to the correct page, their page titles are horribly unoptimised, and their URLs leave a lot to be desired. Although it would be a big job to organise the sprawling amount of content across bbc.co.uk, with some concerted onsite SEO they could see some serious results from basic onsite optimisation across their site.
If the BBC are serious about promoting their content online, and see the medium of search as being effective and value for money, it doesn't make much sense for them to be spending money on PPC while neglecting their SEO. What's more, investing in SEO would give them much more value for their taxpayers' money.