Three years ago, the then NPfIT minister Caroline Flint condemned a PR company which had placed pay-per-click keyword adverts with Google. The PR company was working for NHS Connecting for Health on improving the image the of NHS IT scheme, NPfIT.
Flint in 2007 promised an investigation into the placing of the ads. She said in a Parliamentary reply that the Department of Health had terminated its arrangement with the unnamed PR company.
With the help of Conservative Shadow Health Minister Stephen O'Brien, Computer Weekly discovered that that some of the ads had been a form of spin: when Google searches pulled up articles that put the NPfIT in a negative light, an ad link to NHS Connecting for Health appeared prominently on the first search page.
A Google search on the Public Accounts Committee, which had published a critical report on the NPfIT in 2007, pulled up a NHS Connecting for Health sponsored link, where people were directed to positive stories about the NHS IT scheme.
An NHS Connecting for Health sponsored link also appeared when Google searches delivered links to BBC articles on how the NHS IT scheme was hit by delays.
And Connecting for Health link ads appeared when people used the search term "project profile model". The Project Profile Model was an internal DH document that provided evidence that the NPfIT was categorized as high risk. Private Eye and the IT Projects Blog published details of the NPfIT project profile model in 2007. This blog published the document in full in 2009.
When, in 2007, Stephen O'Brien asked a Parliamentary question about the Google keyword terms used by the Department of Health, Caroline Flint condemned the ads.
"This link was established by a communications agency contracted to NHS Connecting for Health without authorisation and without consultation on the search criteria used.
"This was part of a wider programme of initiatives to improve communications about the Connecting for Health programme. The arrangement has been terminated. No costs have been borne by NHS Connecting for Health or indeed by the taxpayer.
"We are exploring with the agency concerned the circumstances under which this arrangement was made and the terms under which it operated, including the search criteria."
The Department of Health's allergy to Google ads was short-lived. Soon the Department placed its own orders with Google.
The Health Minister Phil Hope conceded in a Parliamentary answer on 8 February 2010 that the Department of Health has spent £2.7m on Google Adword online advertising in one year alone, February 2009 to January 2010.
This was the Parliamentary question and answer:
Nick Hurd [Conservative Shadow Minister]: To ask the Secretary of State for Health for which Google Adword online advertising keywords his Department and its agencies have paid in the last 12 months; and at what cost.
"For the period 1 February 2009 to 31 January 2010 the Department ran 21,939 active search terms, (including searches on specific campaigns and those used by NHS Choices).
"The total spend on all these searches was: £2,720,457.11.
Hope refused to publish the keywords the DH used because it would put the department at a competitive advantage. Quite how much competition the Department of Health has isn't clear.
"In relation to which Google keywords have been bought for use, such information is commercially sensitive; in particular the collection of the keywords the Department has paid for on NHS Choices is estimated to have taken approximately one year to complete.
"The commercially competitive nature of the cost of Google Adword keywords means that putting specific information in the public domain on actual keywords used could put the Department at a future competitive disadvantage."
Some of the DH paid-for keyword ads can be easily defended. A Google search of "anti-smoking" brings up an ad for NHS Choices which gives information on how to quit smoking.
And this thoughtful analysis by Simon Dickson makes the point that the £2.7m might have been sensibly spent by the Department on having its useful information on heart disease, chlamydia, diabetes and other problems appear prominently on Google.But are Google pay-per-click ads worth the spend of at least £2m a year? Are there real benefits for the nation's health, or is the spend of public funds with Google a means of expansion and added influence for a Whitehall bureaucracy?
Given the dubious search terms used by a PR company working for NHS Connecting for Health in 2007, can we be sure that none of the £2.7m spent on Google keyword links last year was aimed by countering the effect of media articles that criticized the Department of Health?
Some would say that countering media scare stories is, for the DH, a good way to use Google adwords.
But there appears to be no independent scrutiny of the DH's Google-related activities. Which prompts another question: Is the minister Phil Hope hiding anything behind his defence of keyword secrecy?
PS: The Government spent £16m in three years on monitoring what the media says about it, according to The Guardian in December 2008. Shouldn't this kind of spending also be independently checked?
Phil Hope's Parliamentary reply - Theyworkforyou.comDH spends £2.7m on Adwords - Puffbox
Department of Health spends £2.5m on Google Ads - Nursing Times
Investigation into "unauthorised" Google sponsored links for NHS Connecting for Health - IT Projects Blog
Phil Hope's Parliamentary reply - Theyworkforyou.com
Government reveals Google ad spend - Taxpayers' Alliance
Government spent £16m in three years on monitoring media coverage - The Guardian (December 2008)