Dark arts? More like bogus boasts

On Bell Pottinger, fake blogs and Googlewashing.

During the course of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's sting operation, published in the Independent today, Bell Pottinger's head of public affairs Tim Collins declares: "We've got all sorts of dark arts." These are "dark arts" that apparently can be deployed to manage online reputations for clients.

In other words, by using some rather murky SEO (search engine optimisation) techniques, the company could guarantee more favourable client content appearing higher in Google's search results.

According to the report:

A presentation shown during the meeting said it [Bell Pottinger] could "create and maintain third-party blogs" -- blogs that appeared to be independent. These would contain positive content and popular key words that would rank highly in Google searches. The pair also explained how the firm enables government videos and articles to move to the top of internet searches, while less favourable stories can move down the rankings.

If it is true that Bell Pottinger -- which dismissed the Independent's coverage as "an attempt to manufacture a story where none exists" -- was boasting that it could "manipulate" Google's search results in this way, then perhaps the firm should reconsider that claim. For a start, it contravenes the codes of conduct of both the CIPR and PRCA -- the two main PR industry trade bodies -- in terms of transparency.

Moreover, the claim that any PR firm (or anyone) for that matter, can guarantee to manipulate Google results is also clearly bogus.

How does Google decide to rank one page more highly than another? It uses hundreds of different factors to determine its search results but one major signal is the quality of links from other pages. Not only that, but Google knows what constitutes a natural rise in links versus those that someone is attempting to artificially inflate.

Google would notice any abnormal link building, for example a page that suspiciously starts getting lots of links in a very short space of time from what will be, by definition, low authority pages and sites. Creating fake blogs and using comment spam to try and "manipulate" Google (or Googlewashing as some call it) is not tolerated by the search engine firm -- and will have the reverse effect.

The Independent's report continues:

The firm cited past examples of its work, included manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Bell Pottinger executives said they had ensured that references to a former Dahabshill employee subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay because of alleged links to al-Qai'da disappeared from the first 10 pages of a Google search for the company.

OK. It doesn't take much to work out that the employee concerned was called "Muhammad Sulayman Barre". Try searching on that name in Google and see what results you get.

Or try searching on "Dahabshiil employee guantanamo".

The notion that Bell Pottinger could somehow guarantee manipulating Google results is misguided -- a definite case of overclaiming for the apparently very expensive "dark arts" of online reputation management.


Andrew Smith is Managing Director of Escherman Limited, a specialist online PR, SEO and analytics consultancy. He tweets @andismit

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.