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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear