For the last couple of months, if you search Google and put in words like oil spill or gulf oil spill, at the top of the results list, you will get an ad from BP with the title BP Response. In it, BP gives you their side of the story about the oil disaster in the gulf and how they are responding to it. Unless you look carefully, it is easy to confuse the BP ad with the Google search results.
It is common on search engines that ads respond to your search terms, but this is the first time that I can remember that not only is the ad appearing, but where on the results page it appears is always the same. The real estate of web pages matter. By always placing the ad between the search box and the results list, it can blur the line between ads and search results.
My guess is that this case will be studied for years in business schools and how BP has used search engines to put out their message is an important part of their public relations strategy. There is nothing wrong with ads, of course. Google is able to digitize some amazing things because of their ad income. But we as search engine users need to be aware of how information can be influenced by things like the placement of ads on a results page. And as a librarian, I have to point out the obvious: library databases don’t have ads and so how their results display cannot be influenced like this.