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Is Boris Johnson gaming Google?

PM’s talk of being ‘distracted by cheese’ when working from home could be a clever way to manipulate search results

Gareth Morgan
17 June 2022, 12.00am
Boris Johnson said he got distracted by cheese and coffee while working at home
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Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Ask a few remote workers what they struggle with while working from home, and you’ll probably hear similar answers. Not having colleagues around, perhaps, or dodgy wifi connections.

Not Boris Johnson, though. His biggest WFH gripe is being distracted by coffee and cheese.

Or so he says.

But is there more to his answer than meets the eye? Is the prime minister just a bit eccentric – or is he deliberately using certain words, combined with clever search engine optimisation (SEO) tactics, to try and bury certain news stories?

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Say, one about a party, with lots of wine and cheese. Held in Downing Street during a global pandemic, perhaps, amid a national lockdown.

The prime minister’s ratings took a beating after partygate. It had a major impact on his future viability as the Conservative leader and even contributed to a confidence vote, so it’s understandable that he wants this story forgotten.

Had you Googled ‘Boris Johnson cheese’ a few weeks ago, you’d have been met with results on partygate, from every major news source. Repeat the search now, and you’ll find a page made up almost entirely of stories to do with these new working from home comments.

If Johnson planned this, then it’s working well.

Model bus vs Brexit bus

Two years ago, rumours started appearing in the SEO world about how Boris might be trying to manipulate Google rankings for his own good.

A few people within the digital marketing community started asking if the bizarre answers he was giving in interviews were actually cleverly calculated messages – ones that can change the online narrative and alter the results that future search engine users see when researching him.

When he talked to an interviewer about painting wine boxes to look like model buses, most people laughed or rolled their eyes. But in just this one interview he pushed many old news stories down the search engine results. Stories about the £350m-for-the-NHS Brexit bus, and his fight with Carrie that resulted in a wine-soaked sofa, as well as ones about his affair with a former model all became less prominent.

When he brought up his vision for an Irish Sea Bridge, which many people claimed was fantastical from the start, was he actually using these words to help clean up older articles about his failed £53m London Garden Bridge project?

It’s quite easy to change what results are displayed when you have the power to create news with every interview you give

This method is often successful because people mostly search in short bursts of words, such as “Boris Johnson wine” or “Boris Johnson bus”. This is largely because of Google’s ‘autosuggest’ feature, which offers autocompleted text strings that appear as a drop down when you start a search.

If you can get one of the main media outlets to feature those words in the headline of an article – then it’s often sufficient to convince search engines that the article is relevant enough to appear at the top of the results for that query.

Search engines also tend to feature newer content more favourably, so it’s quite easy to change what results are displayed when you have the power to create news with every interview you give.

It’s not perfect. A search for “Boris bus” still sees images of a red bus with £350m written on its side appear at the top of the results, but, more often than not, the bad news does get suppressed.

Managing an online reputation

This kind of activity has been a part of the SEO world since search engines first started. There is a whole reputation management subset of digital marketing, one that helps brands and individuals remove or bury negative results. With a lot of work and a little luck, it’s possible to clean up Google results by pushing positive websites and articles to the top, above undesirable ones.

If you think the average politician doesn’t know what SEO is, then you’re probably right. But they sure know what bad press is and the long-term impact it can have on their career prospects.

Politicians are asking their advisers how they can get rid of less-than-glowing coverage and those advisers in turn speak to business consultants and marketers to find out the options.

The political advisers that I have spoken to over the years knew exactly what they wanted to achieve from a digital marketing agency. When you match one of these people with an SEO professional specialising in reputation management, you get the exact strategy that Boris is most probably using.

So the next time the prime minister says something completely daft in an interview, think about the scandals of the recent past – and whether there is a word that is common to both.

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