Rumour has it, Boris Johnson is trying to manipulate our Google search results by using similar keywords or phrases of already-circulating negative media coverage to create new trending stories. Basically, BoJo will say or do something random to distract us from his dubious track record, and the news will pick it up.
In June, during an interview with Ross Kempsell, Boris Johnson shared that he likes to make and paint models of buses in his downtime. Naturally, the next day, the focus of the media was on this peculiar, and frankly random hobby. Of course, that is not to judge his hobbies, but for a man who has previously shared his love for painting cheese boxes and claims to have written an entire script for a potential blockbuster film set in war-torn Syria and Iraq, this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. But what if all of Johnson’s random little remarks weren’t so random after all, and are all but a ploy to take our attention away from current affairs, ones that actually matter?
According to a theory identified and published by Parallax, this whole bus fiasco may have been an attempt to rearrange our search results when we type in ‘Boris Johnson’ and ‘bus’ on Google and other search engines. The reason for this would be to try and hide evidence of that time when Johnson created the infamous ‘Brexit’ buses, branded with false claims that the UK sends £350 million a week to Europe, right before the Brexit vote. The thing is, once Johnson’s hobby was revealed, not only did it get immense media coverage, but it also completely rearranged search results. According to the data conducted by Parallax, the CTR (click-through rate) has “fallen to a sub 2 per cent,” and “mentions from so many high tier publications with hefty domain authority pushing down ‘Routemaster bus’ related articles and replacing them with articles about Boris making model buses.”
And if the fact that all of this happening mid-campaign may still seem like a coincidence or conspiracy, there are more cases like this. For instance, earlier in September, Johnson gave a speech (the appropriate term to use would be rambled) in front of the police. At the same time, reports were circulating about how the police were called to the flat he shared with his partner Carrie Symonds, due to an alleged domestic dispute. This way, when ‘Boris Johnson and police’ were googled, his incomprehensible speech would show up instead. Similarly, Johnson saying that he was the “model of restraint,” could have been an attempt at shifting the attention from his alleged affair with ex-model Jennifer Arcuri, meaning that now, when you google “model” next to his name, of course, the model of restraint comes up.
It is unlikely that Boris Johnson is secretly an SEO strategy genius, but what about his PR team? “I doubt that manipulating the SERPs (search engine results pages) was exactly the plan, I don’t want to give them that much credit,” Jess Melia, who wrote the article detailing this exact theory for Parallax, tells Screen Shot.
“I think I’d hesitate to point to BoJo himself as the mastermind behind any online strategy,” says Ruth Attwood, Founder and SEO consultant at Puglet Digital. Adding that it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume someone working in PR would have a good understanding of SEO or have knowledge of using “search influenced channels to get out whatever message or change in perception they’re aiming for. It’s their job, after all.”
“There’s a lot more at play in terms of PR, coverage and social platforms in today’s digital ecosystem,” Attwood explains. When someone of a high influence (brand, media outlet or individual) starts driving a conversation into a particular direction, this almost always influences Google search results. “Of course, what someone sees and what they think are two very different things, but I think it would be remarkably short-sighted to think that search engine results don’t have any influence on the public consciousness.” Of course, Boris Johnson’s remarks have clearly changed the results of our search engines—but the thing is, the news media outlets that are publishing these conversations are the ones dominating the digital news domain.
So what does this teach us about our search engine usage and results? Of course, these can be influenced ‘for us’, which then also dictates the news and media we consume. For those of us who aren’t SEO specialists (and I am certainly not), it is hard to crack theories such as these. So perhaps next time, if you hear Boris Johnson doing something odd and ridiculous, take it with a grain of salt and perhaps refrain from tweeting about it.