Searching for Boris
If someone has negative results appearing in search, does it make sense for them to try to “deceive” Google by using terms associated with the negative result in positive ways? A meditation on models and buses.
Amid the political drama of Brexit, a hung parliament, and upcoming elections, the virtual Boris Johnson also caused a stir, especially among digital media professionals.
A recent Wired article discussed the fascinating, odd phenomenon of Boris Johnson’s “off script” ramblings, rumored to be an attempt to “game Google.”
It began on June 20, 2019, when Johnson gave a most peculiar interview on Britain’s TalkRadio. He was not yet prime minister of the UK but was already the most likely candidate to replace Theresa May. He was asked what he does to relax. His reply, many will remember, was perplexing: “I make things. I make models of buses.” He went into detail about this unexpected hobby.
Almost immediately, pundits began to suspect there was something more cunning behind Johnson’s answer than the average politician’s disconnect from real people. Maybe, they surmised, it was a calculated move to improve his search results.
You see, Boris Johnson was already famous for another bus – one in which he rode around the country before the Brexit vote, encouraging people to vote to leave the European Union. On the side of that bus, in big letters, it said, “We send £350 million to Europe, let’s fund our NHS instead,” which was a contentious statement, and perhaps an outright lie.
First the social media opinion makers, and then everyone from Gizmodo to John Oliver, suggested that perhaps Johnson specifically spoke about model buses, so that anyone searching for “Boris Johnson bus” would read about the models, not the Brexit campaign.
This seemed unlikely at first. But then, in early September, shortly after media reports that the police had been called to a flat Johnson shared with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, Boris gave a rambling speech while standing in front of a group of police cadets. Was that another attempt to manipulate Google?
And then on September 29, in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Johnson insisted he was “a model of restraint.” The phrase was picked up in headlines across the country and internationally. Coincidentally (or not), he said this a day after police opened an investigation into potential criminal misconduct for awarding state money to model Jennifer Arcuri, an alleged mistress.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” In the case of Johnson, repeating the supposed “trick” three times makes it seem like an attempt to massage his search results and media.
The question is – assuming it is a trick – does it even work? If someone has negative results appearing in search, does it make sense for him or her to try to “deceive” Google by using terms associated with the negative result in positive ways?
If you looked at the search results immediately after Johnson spoke about his model buses, most of the results were about the models, rather than the Brexit bus. So, it was a clear short-term win. But the Brexit bus was already old news, and Boris mumbling about his hobbies was probably just about as exciting for readers.
Furthermore, a couple of months later, the hobby buses have largely disappeared from search results (though “luckily” for Boris, the company that made the buses went bankrupt, so that has dominated the results.)
With the police and the model diversions, Johnson was less successful. Of the average 10 results on page 1 of Google search, one or two were about the positive spin, most were negative, and a couple were articles like this one, discussing whether or not Boris was intentionally trying to manipulate the results (it’s unclear whether these discussions please Johnson.)
But fundamentally, even if the theory is true and he really was using these tactics to manipulate search, it would be the wrong approach to take for a very simple reason: User behavior.
Someone who searches for “Boris Johnson bus” or “Boris Johnson model” is looking specifically for the “dirt.” Even if, hypothetically, there are no negative results on page 1, someone looking for information on Johnson and Jennifer Arcuri will simply click to page 2 or use more focused search key words until they find what they are looking for. With a specific search like that, there is no point trying to manipulate the results (even if such a thing were possible): you cannot fool the searchers themselves.
Perhaps the PR team behind this initiative got a pat on the back from Johnson – at least they managed to remove some of the negatives for a few days. But in fact, they didn’t really make any difference at all to Johnson’s online reputation.
We spend all day thinking about and working on client’s online reputation, and we know that cheap tricks and short-term fixes are not the way to go. Nor does it make sense to focus specifically on the negative terms, because someone who is looking for the negatives will find them.
Rather, we would be more interested in what search results look like for “Boris Johnson” or “UK Prime Minister.” If someone searches with no preconceived ideas, what do they find?
There is such a constant torrent of news about Johnson and Brexit, that it would be impossible to take complete control of his search results right now. Nonetheless, a search for “Boris Johnson” includes his Wikipedia article (which almost always ranks near the top of page 1 for the subject, and which is supposed to be unbiased and fairly written.) His Twitter account and his Facebook profile both rank on page 1. So, he “owns” two of the results on page 1 (and has a Twitter box, which occupies more space that he controls.)
Let’s look at a couple of senior members of Johnson’s cabinet. Jacob Rees-Mogg is Leader of the House of Commons. Page 1 of his Google results include his Twitter and Facebook profiles, his Wikipedia entry, and his profile on www.parliament.uk.
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, has results from Wikipedia, Twitter, www.parliament.uk, www.gov.uk, and his own website, https://www.sajidjavid.com. These types of “owned” results occupy the top half of the first page of Google, knocking out negative results and allowing those MPs to more closely control their online reputations.
We don’t know for certain whether Johnson was trying to use tricks to manipulate his search results, but we do know that if he were to ask us, we’d tell him this: Sir, you’d be better off focusing your energy on optimizing www.boris-johnson.com (a site not updated since 2016) and/or populating borisjohnson.com, which is not even live. You could also strengthen your owned results for the search term “Boris Johnson,” rather than speaking about model buses or posing with policemen. Your PR team is welcome to contact us. You can go back to the models.