Archives for posts with tag: PR

You may be under the impression that when you search for something on Google the results you see are the same as anyone else that performs that search. This isn’t the case, and hasn’t been for a long time.

In 2009 Google went full steam ahead with personalized search. The idea was to look through your internet history, your Gmail and all the rest of your Google products and look for signals that would enable Google to tailor a search results to exactly what you are looking for.

As well as looking through your history, Google has always wanted to look at your social network to make your search results more relevant. The only problem with that is it doesn’t own any social network data – a social network like Facebook is a ‘walled garden’ that Google can only peek in from the outside.

The arrival of Google+ allows Google free-rein over your social data and will herald the age of a new buzzword – social search. Social search is the process whereby your social network (or social graph) affects the results of a Google search. By looking at the content that has been created or shared by people in my social graph, the results I get from a Google search will be more personalized than ever before.

I’ve already seen this in action. After searching Google for ‘SOPA’ (the Stop Online Piracy Act) I found myself reading from a website that I had never heard of. I traced how I ended up on this particular page and it turns out that someone I have in my Google Circle network was a writer for this website and had +1’ed the article.

This is great, right? Google search results will become more relevant, based upon people like me and less likely to be manipulated by dirty SEO tactics. Some people have even gone so far as to call this a ‘Socratic Revolution’ – suggesting that the era of personalized search is akin to the philosopher Socrates placing man at the center of the intellectual universe.

There is, however, a dark side to personalized search that has been recognized in a book called  ‘The Filter Bubble’ by Eli Pariser. The problem, he argues, is that this personalized ecosystem of knowledge acts as a mirror that reinforces what we believe without allowing the possibility of our views being challenged. Each new layer of personalization strengthens the walls of our own bubble – satisfying us with the information we want to see instead of offering new ideas. Or as he puts it, we are being given ‘too much candy, and not enough carrots.’

Whilst the Filter Bubble emphasizes our uniqueness, it acts as a centrifugal force – it pulls us apart from one another. With enough personalization the front page of Google News will be different for everyone, removing the kind of shared experience we used to have with a newspaper. Also, the Filter Bubble is invisible – we don’t know the maths behind how these algorithms define us. And with the increasing omnipotence of Google – it is difficult to not be a part of it.

So the arrival of Google+ social search marks a new era of ‘invisible autopropaganda’ that will continue ‘indoctrinating us with our own ideas’. What it will also mark is the start of a new form of marketing and campaigning – especially in the run-up to the 2012 US election. If I tap ‘Healthcare’ into Google I will be presented with the healthcare articles that my network has shared. Both the Democrats and the Republicans will have to fight to ensure that they have the right people inside the voters Google Circles.

Whilst we may still be at the dawn of social search – the correct techniques in this area could eventually make or break a campaign. Could 2012 be the year that Obama leverages Google+ to win the election?

My last two blog posts have explored the basic concepts of SEO and how SEO is used to get to the top of Google News. This post I want to shift over to the murky side of SEO and see how it is used as one of the ‘Dark Arts’.

An undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently exposed the inner workings of one of Britain’s largest lobbying companies, Bell Pottinger. Posing as agents for a country with terrible human rights abuses, the investigative team secretly recorded senior executives making promises to use the ‘dark arts’ to help bury negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour.

The techniques used by Bell Pottinger ranged from using their connections to the Prime Minister to ‘fixing Wikipedia’ and manipulating Google to ‘drown’ out negative coverage of their clients.

The manipulation of Google that Bell Pottinger refers to is the mastery of SEO techniques to push positive media coverage up a Google search engine results page (known as a SERP) and to pull negative coverage down. The idea is that the higher up a SERP a link is, the more likely it is to be visited by the searcher – a study found that 42% of searchers click on the first link on a page, and that 90% click somewhere on the first 10 links.

The use of SEO to give your company a boost in search engine authority is nothing new – the process of using it to drown out negative coverage is a capability Bell Pottinger bragged about pioneering in 2007, calling it ‘Crisis Management’

(from PR Week)

The group claims the firm, headed by MD Paul Mead, will link PR with SEO in a genuinely new way.

‘Previously SEO has only been used to make sure a brand is noticed and high-up on a relevant search,’ said BP Group chairman Kevin Murray. ‘What we are doing is taking the world’s biggest reputation management tool – Google – and turning it into a tool for crisis management.’

Whilst the basic’s of SEO are simple enough, to be an expert takes a lot of effort and the field changes daily. Google is said to have over 10,000 signals that tell it how to rank web-pages – signals that are kept a closely guarded secret. It is a SEO specialists job to experiment with Google and crawl through the hundreds of blogs and forums dedicated to the topic.

The unethical dark side of SEO has a name, Black Hat Search Engine Optimisation. It is frowned upon by the more ethically minded SEO practitioners and generally considered a short term solution to an SEO problem. However, for a lobbying company like Bell Pottinger – these short term solutions can be just the fix needed to drown out negative coverage.

Common techniques include:

  • Keyword Stuffing: This is where as many keywords as possible are stuffed into the content and the meta data. This is quite an old technique that most search engines can avoid.
  • Invisible Text: Placing a long list of keywords in white text on a white background so that it is invisible to a viewer but visible to a search engine.
  • Doorway Page: A page on a website that viewers will never visit optimised for search engines. If anyone does happen to visit this page, they are redirected to the main page.
  • Link Farming: Harvesting links from unrelated pages
  • Throw Away Domains: Purchasing domains with a keyword heavy address and linking to your page.
  • Deceptive Headlines: Luring people to your site with misinformation to increase your authority.

Another interesting technique is called ‘Google Bombing‘. This is a process that involves creating lots of links around the web that point to the page being bumped up and filling the anchor text (the visible, clickable part of a hyperlink) with the keywords. One recent example was when Pro-Lifers used a Google Bomb to bring the Wikipedia page for ‘Murder’ to the top of a SERP for ‘Abortion’.

These are just a handful of techniques for unethical optimisation. SEO is a non-stop dance between the search engines that are trying to create a useful and fair search engine result page and those that try and manipulate it. Of course, the people that are the best at manipulating SEO are those that attract the highest fee’s – fee’s that only companies with the budgets of a lobbying company like Bell Pottinger can afford.

The Bell Pottinger investigation highlights the incredible importance of SEO in our digital world. If anything is to be learnt, it is that those that support human rights must learn these techniques in order to combat against them.

This year has seen crowdsourcing rapidly evolve. The advent of the Web 2.0 (or the social web) has made the possibility of mass collaboration easier than ever before.

The web is populated by people that will willing give their time and expertise to any idea that can motivate and inspire them. The wisdom of the crowd has never been more easily harnessed, and this year has already seen some exciting and inventive crowdsourcing methods.

Of course, crowdsourcing has been around for a while. It is engrained in the way the internet has develop – Wikipedia is created and edited by members of the public, software develops through the collaboration of programmers in an open source environment, and businesses have been using the internet to headhunt the right people for the job since the start.

But now, as the social web spreads across all areas of life, we are seeing an explosion in crowdsourcing experimentation. This is a lowdown of some of this years notable examples and recent developments.

Crowdsourced Government

The most popular recent example is the new UK coalition governments initiative to give the people a voice. Your Freedom and Spending Challenge are both websites designed to allow people to  shape government policy by both suggesting ideas and rating others. Whether it is finding areas to cut spending, or asking people what silly laws they would like repealed – the government seem to be going with the flow and using the web to communicate with the people.

However, these exercises seem to be more of a gimmick then a serious attempt to give the crowd a role in government. These sites don’t appear to have had any effect yet – and The Guardian has reported that none of the government departments involved in the project are willing to amend any of their policies – despite over 9500 responses.

It has always been possible to ask the population what they want (and how much they want it) through established research companies. These websites, although exciting,  seem to be nothing more than a PR exercise by a governement wanting to project an image that they are digitally savvy and care about the peoples opinion.

Although, some of the suggestions do make for interesting reading…

TellYouGov – Real Time Reaction

Online polling company YouGov have introduced a new service that allows members to express opinion and comment on any topic that they want.

TellYouGov is simple to use – you enter either  a brand, name, concept etc into one box, choose whether you feel positively or negatively about it and then leave a comment. This real-time public sentiment allows people to express their views on anything, and makes people feel heard and valued.

The results are recorded and YouGov have a search bar that allows you to find a brand/celebrity and track their popularity (or lack of) over time. They provide a simple volume/score graph  and a long list of all the comments users have left.

It is even utilising Twitter – a member can post “Avatar + amazing special effects #tellyougov” to indicate a positive sentiment about the film.

This service has massive potential if it grows. It already has quite a few users all regularly registering their sentiment – and YouGov also offer a regular prize for members to keep the service buliding momentum.

Crowdsolving – NetFlix and the Oil Spill

Of course, the crowd won’t always have something interesting to say. When DVD rental website NetFlix wanted to improve its film recomendation service they needed a unique programmer.

But instead of hiring an expensive agency, NetFlix chose to run an incentivised competition with an award of $1,000,000 to the best solution. It worked – by using the crowd as a communication mechanism they had solved their problem.

Crowdsolving is also being used to combat the environmental damage caused by the oil leak. As BP struggled to contain the leak, websites began appearing that allowed experts, and non experts, to post suggestions to cap the leak. More recently the Schmidt Family Foundation has announced a competition with a prize of $1.4 million to anyone that can develop a way to help clear up the spill.

This competetion is also keeping people aware of the long term damage the leak will cause – rather than allowing the story to fizzle away from the media. Both examples show how using the crowd to communicate a message can be extremely effective – either to get the message heard or keep it alive.

Foldit – Gaming and Crowdsourcing

One problem that any potential crowdsourcing project faces is the question of how to get people to take part. A financial incentive is not always the most effective way to increase participation, especially if the funding is limited and the task is massive!

The solution is to look at what encourages humans to take part – gaming. One recent crodsourcing success has been the combination of online multiplayer competition with scientific research – Foldit.

As anyone that has been hooked to Tetris will know – simple games can be furiously addictive. Foldit transforms the boring and long task of understanding proteins into a game where you are scored on how well you put a protein structure together. This is a task that a computer doesn’t perform very effectively and can only be effectively done by human input.

This is just one of many recent examples of gaming being applied to help solve problems in the real world. Jane McGonigal is a passionate believer in the power of games to aid progress. She recently delivered an excellent speech at TED that is well worth a watch!

Her most recent work is the game Evoke which has recruited a team of players to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. Focusing on a problem a week – it intends to teach people through simulated environments. The game has recieved funding from the world Bank Institute and looks set to make a large splash when it picks up momentum.

HelpMeInvestigate

HelpMeInvestigate is a collaborative investigative reporting website that encourages people to get involved with  investigations that capture their interest. It looks like it will become particularly effective when a large amount of regional reporting is needed  – such as checking local MP’s election campaign expenses.

I have blogged about this website before. In my opinion it is truly leading the way in next generation investigation methods. It is using all aspects of social media to powerfully communicate with members and is allowing people to feel part of something big!

And one not so useful example

HeinzRocket is an agency that provides advertising solutions to companies by using a crowd of over 1000 artists. Their most recent endeavour has been to crowdsource a new name for crowdsourcing by offering a £1000 prize. With stupid examples ranging from “Grapes of Wrathing” to ‘Massideation” – this perhaps shows how crowdsourcing can go a bit too far.

America has been demanding the head of BP – and now they have got it.

Following political indignation in the White House, the British BP CEO Tony Haywood has been replaced by an American, the first non-British CEO the company has had.

This has come after an intensive media campaign focused on Haywood as the evil face of the catastrophe. The American Press has particularly focused on Haywood as the man responsible.

The removal of Haywood is an effective PR strategy by BP, and one that was needed following Haywood’s disastrous public image.

He has made some ridiculous statements and gaffes that could be interpreted as insensitive. Spending millions on advertising and complaining about how he has personally suffered becuase of the spill has made him “the most hated and most clueless man in America”.

I’m sure that he has been under a lot of pleasure and made some stupid mistakes. But his speciality is clearly in geology, not public relations.

But this American tendency to focus blame on one person rather than address the larger issues is dangerous.

Scapegoating Hayward has meant that the media has been able to keep the story going and also provide BP with an easy way out.

Of course – the real responsibility lies with everyone’s unstoppable need for oil, the business sectors unquenchable thirst for fast profits and all of the worlds  governments slow approach to environmental issues.

But the apparatus put in place by the government, media and business sector insists that we finish this story with a simple conclusion – the bad guy has had his comeuppance.

The media is still clinging on to his large payoff, and I’m sure he will be used as the focus of the oil spill for a while longer.

But an environmental disaster story like this needs to extend far beyond a simple ending. It needs to interrogate all the reasons why this happens, and not focus on a single villain.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers