Fossil Fuel Companies Are Cashing In On Google Ad Placements That Read Like Regular Search Results

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A new study has confirmed that fossil fuel companies are buying numerous Google ads. One in five ads listed at the top of climate-related search term results were for companies connected to fossil fuels. The ads are specifically designed to appear like search results, hoodwinking readers into clicking.

The study was carried out by The Guardian. 78 climate-related terms were searched for, with results and associated ads being logged and analysed. The study was carried out in partnership with thinktank, InfluenceMap. More than 1,600 ads, representing one in five, were bought by companies directly involved in fossil fuels or closely connected to them.

Fooling the end-user

Google ads are popular because they have been designed to closely resemble standard search results. With just a small ‘Ad’ written next to them, it is easy to click on a sponsored result without realising. A 2020 study revealed the extent of the deception when it announced that more than 50 percent of users couldn’t differentiate between a Google ad and a search result.

Amongst the top advertisers were ExxonMobil, Shell, and Goldman Sachs. All have a vested interest in garnering positive public opinion about fossil fuel production.

“Google is letting groups with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels pay to influence the resources people receive when they are trying to educate themselves,” Jake Carbone, senior data analyst at InfluenceMap told The Guardian. “The oil and gas sector has moved away from contesting the science of climate change and now instead seeks to influence public discussions about decarbonisation in its favour.”

Among the most troubling findings was Shell promoting its net-zero ambitions. While users attempt to understand what such goals mean, the oil conglomerate has been found to be flooding Google with self-promoting blog articles that muddy the water. Similarly, consulting agency McKinsey advertised on more than 8 in 10 searches for “energy transition”. They claimed that the firm is engaged in helping companies advance sustainability. Away from the ad-sphere, the agency has advised 43 of the top 100 most polluting companies on the planet.

A further deep dive on Google’s platform revealed that “snippets”, though not paid for, are chosen by Google’s algorithm. A short sample from the most relevant website entry relating to a search term is shown at the top of the page. These snippets have been shown to be taken from high-ranking SEO articles. In the study, “fracking” was searched for with a pro-activity excerpt from the Independent Petroleum Association if America displayed.

Mining for data

The Guardian noted that finding relevant data about Google ads proved difficult. Unlike Facebook, there is no publicly accessible library. This means it is impossible to get an accurate overview of all activities. Google commented that ads denying climate change have now been actively banned from the site. It went on to claim that ads are “clearly labeled”, despite consumer surveys suggesting otherwise.

Despite an onslaught of academic proof that the fossil fuel industry is contributing significantly to climate change, it continues to expand, not adapt. Reports of impaired personal health have done little to slow the industry either. Last year it was revealed that oil companies are funding fossil-fueled plastics in record numbers. In turn, they themselves are being financed by the biggest and most powerful lending institutions in the world. 

All images courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Amy Buxton

    A long-term committed ethical vegan and formerly Green Queen's resident plant-based reporter, Amy juggles raising a family and maintaining her editorial career, while also campaigning for increased mental health awareness in the professional world. Known for her love of searing honesty, in addition to recipe developing, animal welfare and (often lacklustre) attempts at handicrafts, she’s hands-on and guided by her veganism in all aspects of life. She’s also extremely proud to be raising a next-generation vegan baby.

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