Luda was right: in an industry where everyone is fighting for a slice of venture funding and market share, anything goes. While starting beef and dissing your peers rarely works for a startup, the battles can be just as bitter.
Everyone that has worked for a startup knows the magic cheat code for growth: SEO. From the first launch of your new app to a giant brand’s fall marketing initiative, SEO perhaps-rightly is taking center stage, a way to put your company on top for as many search terms you can. The different between the number one and number two spots is crucial: some studies peg a full 50% decrease in click traffic between the two. It is important to make sure that your page and marketing does as much as it can to put you on top and leave your competition on page two.
All, however, is not as sunny and bright in the world of search marketing: while legitimate strategies to maximize SEO exist, such as good tagging, content, and press, marketers craft newer ways to get on top daily. Often, these are inherently malicious, seeking loopholes and mistakes in Google’s PageRank system to manipulate their ranking. The punishments are swift and brutal, but not everyone gets caught.
PageRank works well as a tool for sorting the web: at its core, it relies on relevance, calculated namely from linkbacks and the quality of the sites that drive them, to decide where and how a page ranks. The more links back to your brand from high-quality, reputable sites, the better for your rank. Nothing beats a brand’s inherent worth, but for short and long term metrics of success, PageRank is becoming everything.
Google, however, has not mastered the art of context and sentiment, specifically what happens when the site linking to you is doing so because your brand is being criticized. As designed, PageRank sees no difference between a Gizmodo article highlighting how your new VR unit is the future of everything and another noting how a certain Facebook acquisition spells doom for all mankind. Both sites link back to the brand, both are reputable, and both thus boost the SEO ecosystem for the brand. However, the fact that one of those articles deeply criticized the brand is ignored, allowing bad press to actively benefit a brand, no matter the topic or sentiment. It is classic succes de scandale, but on a new, data-driven front.
The biggest question lies in manipulation: since sentiment isn’t directly factored into page ranking, one can feasibly create bad press simply for the near-guaranteed boost in SEO from linkbacks and articles. Are startups and companies actually using this to boost their search rankings and relevancy? Maybe.
Since both the inner workings of Google’s ranking algorithms and any given company’s SEO marketing strategy are hidden, it can only be assumed that awareness of the loophole is at least known. The fairly regular delay in companies, particularly startups, responding to popular scandals or “bad” news also appears to speak to this trend: the benefit gained in having high-quality sites and publications linking back to your brand mitigates the “bad” qualities of the news, giving lasting SEO value that outlives the negative stock of the publicity. It becomes more worthwhile to let bad news live for several hours, days, or weeks, allowing the story to spread higher up the publicity chain and thus boost a brand’s direct traffic and linkbacks. It may just be very bad PR and marketing teams failing to divert stories, or it may be a purposeful means of generating very strong SEO benefits.
Why wait for new features and product launches to fight for PR when you can simply have a member of your team do something outrageous. spark a scandal, or ignore bad press, sitting back while the inherent boost flows in? The bad press always dies first, meaning that actively executing negative publicity can, in some cases, be a legitimate marketing strategy. One struggles to wonder why popular startups have delayed responses to very large and negative scandals as of late, when they simultaneously see their formerly niche name (and backlink) appear on CNN, Techcrunch, Gawker, NBC, or any other very high quality site. More data is needed to see if this actually drives downloads or visits, but the evidence seems to suggest some direct and indirect boost.
Of course, this does not work for everyone. Any brand that relies on positive publicity, such as educational initiatives, CPG and family items, or even that new startup that you invested all of your personal information into all risk too much in manipulating bad press. However, anyone launching a new product or any brand that does not have to rely on positive press, but only attention, for success will likely be tempted to cheat the system. Essentially, if your stock is in word of mouth and company values, not SEO, cheating bad publicity will be fatal. The costs can even translate to startups and B2B companies – a bad review with high page ranking can be fatal.
Solutions are few, and unfortunately hidden. Google adding sentiment tracking to its PageRank system is a natural suggestion, but it also has its flaws. Would actual people have to monitor every single brand linkback or mention, or could an algorithm be trusted to understand the nuances of press speak? What about articles that both criticize and promote various features or efforts? What if Google already added some version of this tracking to its product?
The argument is also frequently pitched that “social media fails” deeply, and permanently, impact a brand’s viability and public opinion, and thus must be a tragedy for branding. While there is some impact for tech-savvy customers in the know, the reality is that a vast majority of consumers are not even aware of your Twitter account, much less finding the site through anything but direct linking or a Google search. In fact, the negative PR generated around these fails helps the very company that it criticizes, spreading the name, brand, and link far and wide, and thus boosting PageRank scores. Again, the benefits can easily outweigh the costs.
Some sites purposely refuse to link back to a brand that they criticize for exactly this reason, but in reality, this tactic is time consuming and not enough. For every site refusing to give PR, another will. Short of simply not talking at all about a scandal, which in turn degrades the quality of the site’s own viability, this method fails. An elegant, and thus reliable, solution seems difficult to execute on either side, increasing the likelihood that more and more companies will purposely activate negative PR as a marketing tool in the future.
For the time being, it seems to be a strategy that can and will be employed. A change, if or when it comes, would be at Google’s discretion and would fundamentally alter how we rank pages today. Thus, it helps to listen well, marketers, startups, or anyone thinking of flipping a story for traffic: it may be even more true today that there is “no such thing as bad publicity,” but a long term boost in SEO is still a gamble, one that can sink your company in a single word. Stick to what works.
Special thanks to John Saunders and 5Four Digital Marketing for advice and insight!by