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Boris Johnson, Shady SEO Master?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2019

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to be strategically using particular words and phrases in speeches and appearances as SEO bait to bury unfavorable news about himself in Google’s search results. My pal Matt Webb has collected three examples of this devious practice over the past month.

Not only has Boris used his infamous ‘dead cat strategy’ to move the conversation away from him and Carrie Symonds and his plans for Brexit, he’s managed to push down his past mistakes on Google, too — making it more difficult for people to get a quick snapshot of relevant information. He’s not just controlling the narrative here — he’s practically rewriting it. And judged by the standards of an SEO campaign, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than a resounding success.

In the latest instance, Johnson used the phrase “model of restraint” in a TV appearance, which then came up in search results for “boris johnson model” instead of articles about the allegations that he’d had a sexual relationship with a former model whose business he funneled money & favors to while mayor of London.

Boris Johnson SEO

Wired has more information on the PM’s potential SEO scam.

His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute, while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.

“It’s a really simple way of thinking about it, but at the end of the day it’s what a lot of SEO experts want to achieve,” says Jess Melia of Parallax, a Leeds-based company that identified the theory with Johnson’s claim to paint model buses.

“With the amount of press he’s got going on around him, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone on his team is saying: ‘Just go and talk about something else and this is the word I want you to use’,” says Melia.

Update: If you didn’t click through to the Wired article by Chris Stokel-Walker, the piece presents a number of reasons why Johnson’s supposed SEO trickery might not work:

For one thing, Google search results are weighted towards behavioural factors and sentiment of those searching for terms — which would mean that such a strategy of polishing search results would be shortsighted. The individual nuances of each user are reflected in the search results they see, and the search results are constantly updated.

“What we search for influences what we find,” says Rodgers. “Not all search results are the same. That front page of Google, depending on what I’ve searched for in the past. It’s very hard to game that organic search.”

Current searches for the terms in question show that any effect was indeed short-lived. On Twitter, Stokel-Walker says that “No, Boris Johnson isn’t seeding stories with odd keywords to reduce the number of embarrassing stories about him in Google search results” (and calls those who believe Johnson is doing so “conspiracy theorists” (perhaps in mock frustration)) but the piece itself doesn’t provide its readers such a definitive answer,1 instead offering something closer to “some experts say he probably isn’t deliberately seeding search keywords and others disagree, but even if he is, it is unlikely to work as a long-term strategy”. Since we don’t really know — and won’t, unless some Johnson staffer or PR agency fesses up to it — that seems like an entirely reasonable conclusion for now.

  1. And this is on purpose! Stokel-Walker isn’t writing an opinion piece here; he’s writing a news article about current events. He quotes reasonable experts on both sides of the debate. That’s what journalists do.