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Are Boris Johnson’s PR People Manipulating Google Search?

Anyone remember the ‘Boris bus’? The pledge plastered across a red London bus to give £350 million to the NHS after the UK leaves the European Union? Here’s a reminder.

For a long time, when you searched for ‘boris bus’ in Google you’d see many references to this Brexit campaign promise. So many references, in fact, that it became a bit of an embarassment for Boris Johnson, as so far it has seemed to be a rather empty promise.

Hence why, in a June 2019 interview, Boris Johnson’s admission that he likes to ‘paint buses’ as a hobby raised some suspicion – primarily because it seemed to be a carefully crafted proclamation designed to game Google’s news algorithms.

First highlighted by the folks at Parallax in Leeds, this tactic did seem to have the intended effect initially when the ‘boris bus’ search result changed to show the interview’s statement rather than the big red Brexit campaign bus.

Boris Bus search result

Then there was a bit of a backlash as some people caught on to the perceived deception, and news outlets like the Daily Mail wrote about it and these stories started to dominate Google’s results.

Ironically, doing the same search today yields results about the bus’s manufacturer going in to administration.

Boris Bus today result

So that initial attempt to game Google’s search results seems to have misfired a bit. Yet, this doesn’t seem to have discouraged the people behind Johnson’s PR spin machine.

This week, it seems, the PR folks responsible for scripting Johnson’s public statements are giving it another attempt. Take these two search results for ‘boris model’, screenshotted a few hours apart by TheAndyMaturin:

Boris Model search results

Once again this seems carefully crafted to shift public attention away from an embarassing story for Boris Johnson, using language designed to make it in to article headlines that then replace existing headlines covering a different story altogether.

Keywords in Headlines

This is not particularly difficult to do in Google, especially in Google News which supplies content to the Top Stories boxes you see in regular Google search results. The news-specific part of Google’s algorithms is focused on speed, i.e. surfacing recent articles, and therefore loses some of its accuracy in terms of topical targeting in favour of simple keyword matching.

By having a relevant keyword in an article headline on an official Google News-approved publisher’s website, Google is likely to show that article in its news boxes – especially when the only alternatives are articles older than 48 hours, which is the primary window of opportunity for articles to show up in Google News.

Google Steers The Public Debate

It seems Johnson’s PR people have a keen sense of Google’s importance in steering the public debate, as it is among the primary sources of news for the general populace. Moreover, these PR people know how to play the game to their advantage, and have journalists at the UK’s major outlets dancing like puppets by serving up the right words to put in to their headlines.

Wherever you stand on the morality of this tactic, it is effective. While those of us working in digital industries tend to be able to spot these efforts rather easily, most of the public won’t notice these shenanigans and will simply consume the headlines they’re shown.

Basically, it’s an effective means of burying embarassing stories in favour of more innocuous articles. Smart use of language gets certain key terms in to headlines for Google to then show in their search results.

You could possibly write off the first ‘boris bus’ attempt as a coincidence, but this latest instance seems to show a pattern of deliberate manipulation. Especially considering searches for the actual person involved in the scandal are diminishing, leaving an opportunity to claim Google search real-estate for less focused searches.

Google Trends Boris Model Jennifer Arcuri

All is fair in love and war, and UK politics is certainly in a state of war right now.

Update: Folks have pointed out to me that this may in fact be the third such instance, as this one is somewhat suspicious too.

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