Big Oil and its allies are greenwashing Google search results, with one in every five ads displayed in searches of 78 climate-related terms paid for by a company with significant interests in fossil fuels, according to a study by The Guardian.
“People turn to Google to educate themselves—so fossil fuel companies are buying up ads on climate-related search terms to influence what they learn about the climate crisis,” tweeted reporter Niamh McIntyre.
The top 20 advertisers on the search terms include ExxonMobil, Shell, Aramco, McKinsey, and Goldman Sachs. Advertisers pay for their ads—which are formatted to look like search results—to appear in response to certain search terms. The analysis also found that “snippets” appearing after queries—which are not paid for but are chosen by Google’s algorithm as the most relevant result—were also sometimes linked to the same companies, McIntyre reports in The Guardian.
“The snippet chosen for ‘fracking’ linked to the website of an oil and gas lobby group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America,” she writes. “In answer to the question: ‘Is fracking a threat to public health?,’ the IPAA page states: ‘No. In fact, there is ample evidence that increased natural gas use… has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years.’” However, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports show fracking can harm drinking water supplies.
Campaigners called out the ad campaign for greenwashing.
“Damaging greenwashing has become endemic,” said Johnny White, a lawyer at environmental charity ClientEarth. “To stamp it out, we need to legislate bans on all fossil fuel advertisements, just like what happened with tobacco.”
The Guardian conducted the research in collaboration with InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks lobbying efforts by polluting industries. The analysis involved recording data for more than 1,600 ads.
“Unlike Facebook, Google doesn’t have an ad library, so we had to gather this information ourselves by plugging in search terms and recording the ads we saw,” McIntyre tweeted.
Google responded to the analysts’ enquiries to say it “recently launched a new policy that will explicitly prohibit ads promoting climate change denial,” and to point out that advertising can be identified by a label in bold, black text.
An ExxonMobil spokesperson said the company “has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work publicly available. And as the scientific community’s understanding of climate change developed, ExxonMobil responded accordingly.”
This would be the same ExxonMobil that spent decades funding climate denial after its own scientists warned of the risks of global warming, and whose U.S. lobbyist bragged last summer about his company’s “aggressive” attack against the Biden administration’s climate plan.
Recently it became known that SEO experts found a vulnerability in domain authority tweaking, one of the indirect metrics that affects the visibility of a site in Google search results.