There is a theory going around the SEO stratosphere that Boris Johnson is doing his very best to manipulate Google search results, something that his recent increasingly bizarre public announcements have done little to disprove. We have recently seen the PM brandish a kipper, give a speech in front of the Police, describe himself as a “model of restraint” and proclaim he loves nothing more than to turn old wine boxes into buses during his free time! If we type any of these Boris Johnson stories into Google, each contains very similar words or phrases to that of other negative news stories centred around the PM. For example by saying he was the “model of restraint” when questioned over his suggested use of violent language to turn public opinion against opponents of Brexit, many believe Johnson was attempting to divert attention from stories detailing his alleged affair with former model Jennifer Arcuri. The latter soon became less visible in search results for “Boris Johnson model”. See what he did there?
The same can be said of, when in July, we saw Boris brandish a kipper to incorrectly claim the EU rules were stifling the fishing industry. This was supposedly a tactic to downplay his connections with “the kippers” (or supporters of UKIP to me and you). When we saw him deliver his speech in front of the Police, was this a way to diminish the story of when the Old Bill had to attend the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute? Many believe so, yes. Then we hear about how he likes to paint old wine boxes turning them into buses. Those close to him would have you believe this is an example of Boris’ quirky personality and a display of how much of a normal (if a little eccentric) guy he actually is. But those on the other side of the Boris SEO conspiracy theory will suggest this was another blatant attempt at manipulation, supposedly intended to re-frame search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.
The whole Boris SEO theory was first suggested by Jess Melia of Parallax, a Leeds-based company. She recently said “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. 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’,”
Parallax do go as far as producing stats to back up their theory, with data suggesting that the Sky News story on Johnson’s claims to be the “model of restraint” had already risen to the third-most popular result for “Boris Johnson model” by 1:30pm on September 30. (He first made the comments on September 29).
For all those believers, there are of course many sceptics who think this theory is a bit too far fetched. Not that it isn't something the PM or those around him may want to do, but simply that it isn't really possible to execute anyway. London-based SEO consultant Lukasz Zelezny recently said on the topic “It’s very unexpected, even from Boris Johnson, but manipulating Google search engine results by saying some ridiculous things is not easily done.” Google search results are far more complex than simply matching up keywords with news stories”. Jayne Rodgers, a lecturer at Teesside University who has analysed Google’s search algorithm, agrees. She explains that “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.” Zelezny backs this up and tells us “All this talk [about Johnson's gaming of the system] on Twitter has a self-propelling snowball effect”
Indeed, if you do a google search for one of the suggested offending words or phrases, you will see that the negative news story is still the related image you probably see first. The phrase “Boris Johnson bus” still shows images of the controversial Brexit campaign bus, the result of images being tagged with the term and no new ones to replace them. Rodgers goes on to explain “Even if it was a deliberate approach, it’s unlikely to work in the long run because all that other [negative] content is still there, and unless you take all those other factors [such as personalised searches and tagged images] into account, you’re only going to get partial results. You might make a slight difference in the short term, but in the long term it’s not going to make a massive difference.” In fact we do know that Google is constantly tweaking its search algorithms and the factors that dictate which news articles and websites will be most prominently displayed. The company does not provide detailed breakdowns of how its search results are processed. This would make manipulation very difficult at such a baseline level.The other question to be considered, is do we think Johnson is actually concerned with the presence of negative news stories enough to resort to SEO manipulation? If we take the recent affair accusation story, 43 per cent of people believe Johnson “probably acted improperly” by not declaring his connection to Arcuri, and only 22 per cent believe he’s honest, but the Conservatives are still the most popular party in the polls. I guess no publicity is bad publicity, right? Well it’s a very interesting debate, and we for one will be standing by for the next Boris Johnson public blunder (and let’s face it, there will be one soon no doubt) and checking exactly what subsequent barmy proclamations the PM makes this time!