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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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