ATLANTA — A Google search of "BP," "gulf spill" or "oil spill" pulls up stories and pictures of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
But atop the results page is a paid-for link, "BP.com/GulfOfMexicoResponse" that the sullied oil company established to show how it is addressing the crisis.
The page is a high-profile example of how companies use paid online search advertising — a mainstay of marketing in the past few years — to not only sell products but also to manage their messages.
Paid search advertising, in which companies pay for a premium spot on the results list, has gained momentum, and the trend is expected to continue.
Companies spend for premium placement when certain terms are searched, saying it raises their online profile with potential customers.
The terms are usually related to the firm's basic services or some current aspect it wants to draw attention to. Payment to Google is typically based on how many people click on the link.
"More than 80 percent of the online population is on Google, and they're raising their hands asking for your product," said Maureen Schumacher, Google's sales director in Atlanta. "A company is able to place their ad right at the time that their interest is highest."
Google is the largest but not the only player in the paid advertising search business, with Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing also vying for their share of paid search dollars.
And they're competing for a larger pie as some companies have shifted away from traditional advertising to spend more on paid searches.
Delta Air Lines, for example, is doing fewer television spots in favor of online channels, said Bub Kupbens, the Atlanta-based carrier's vice president of e-commerce.
The thinking: It makes more sense to target ads to a consumer who is actively researching information.
"You as a user, you are in control," Kupbens said. "You're going out and seeking out the information versus having to passively react to an ad."
The airline bids on more than 1 million keywords spread across some 200 marketing campaigns.
So if someone types "cheap airfare," "flights to Europe" or even "Delta" specifically, any promotions related to those terms or the carrier's Web site would pop up in the paid search results to the right or in a shaded box at the top of the results page.
Multiple companies can bid on the same paid search terms. Where they fall in the search results column depends on how much they pay Google.
Unlike traditional advertising, corporate marketing executives say paid searches allow them to see what kind of return they get in real time because payment to Google depends on how many people click through to the company's site.
Free or "natural" results, the links that appear down the center of the page, would likely bring up some of the same links, but not as reliably or as prominently.
"With natural search you're going to get there, but you may not always rise to the top where you want to be," said Helen Wanamaker, marketing vice president for Equifax's personal information solutions business. "We can see what we can optimize against and what consumers are searching for."
Because customer clicks are measured in real time, companies can drop a term or make changes if results aren't as expected.
Advertisers are likely to continue to use paid search marketing, even as they consider newer marketing venues like smart phones and other mobile devices, said Chris Lemley, a marketing professor at Georgia State University.
"We've gone from the days of broadcasting to narrowcasting," Lemley said.
It's also a way to get ahead of rivals — literally.
"If I see your information first, you set the expectations in my mind for others, and I judge everything else against that," Lemley said. "I want to be in a good position to capture your eyeballs simply before other people do."