The sound of the crowd

17 July 2005

Corporations are being told to blog to counter bad publicity. It can't hurt too much as long as it's done right but I can't see corporate blogging on its own defusing situations where the public have got it in for them. It's taken a while to get around to reading through the white paper "Search is brand" published by Market Sentinel and Weboptimiser. A number of people picked up on the advice in the white paper for corporations to get blogging. But I think the advice should come with a health warning.

The white paper largely concentrates on grocery brands with Google searches used as a way of determining how badly a brand is being hit with 'negative' comments. The argument by the authors is that brands are in danger of losing control of their reputations because the first page Google brings up may contain as many as seven entries that refer to knocking copy. I actually had some difficulty replicating the results quoted by the report's authors as I initially fed the searches to google.com. I later tried google.co.uk and requested only UK pages: the results were then much closer to what the authors claimed. The UK-specific searches generally brought up more links pointing to pages containing criticism. I particularly enjoyed the one that said Dairylea is rhyming slang for wee; I didn't know that one. The searches were performed by the authors on the 6th June and I did mine today.

I need to point out that many of the brands cited by the authors are UK-centric - Bernard Matthews and Tetley, for example - and were mixed in with global examples such as Coca-Cola. Having done my searches more than a month after the authors, I cannot be sure that I saw what they saw - Google's first page for almost any search is a fluid environment. But I have the nagging feeling the authors included anything that could be regarded as negative by the company, as I found an April announcement from the Food Standards Agency about the recall of some types of Dairylea Lunchables among the other supposedly negative page references. The report claimed Bird's Eye chicken and Dairylea did particularly badly on the survey (five negatives out of ten for each search).

Weboptimiser is a search-engine optimisation company, so it should comes as no surprise that the report recommends doing things that make the company come top of search lists, particularly Google. Blogs feature prominently in the report for two reasons. First, bloggers are unhappy and on a mission. The report's authors quoted research by Delahaye, by way of PR Week I believe, that found that only 13 per cent of news coverage on the Net was negative. Who said newspapers only ever run bad news? For blogs, 23 per cent of comments (and presumably posts) were negative. Message boards were the cheeriest of the lot at just 11 per cent. That may because most message board content consists of "WTF! ROFL, LMAO, JPMS !!! ?!?!?! etc", minus the useful punctuation.

The second reason why the report cites blogs as being a brand's worst enemy is their reliance on crosslinking. You ain't nobody on the blogosphere unless you have a lot of people who put links in their blogs that point at yours. Not only does this get you top billing on Technorati and other blog search engines, it plays extremely well with Google's page-rank system. Just how powerful blogs can be for high prominence in Google was shown by the way Anil Dash's blog soared to the top of the listings for the nonsense phrase 'nigritude ultramarine' in a search-engine optimisation contest where no holds were barred, beating an unofficial FAQ page and plenty of 'black hat' search-engine optimisers.

The FAQ claimed: "Anil's site is a blog and appears to have won with the help of old fasioned blog-based Google bombing, showing that despite Google's efforts at protecting against Google bombing bloggers, the bloggers still have a significant amount of power to manipulate search engine results."

A year on, Anil's still there.

Some people have seized on the report as being a prime example of why companies should have blogs. Among them, Steve Rubel claimed the careful engineering of a blog's entries by Common Craft gave the company top billing on Google for its chosen search terms. OK, that's number one sorted out. Now deal with the other nine entries.

Or, put it another way, is blogging is the defence against blogging? Would that have helped Kryptonite or Land Rover? Let's look at Kryptonite and the New York bicycle lock. I don't dispute that blogging's accessibility through Google got the story picked up worldwide by both news media and other bloggers - which backs up the report's position on why blogs need to be considered by any company. However, I feel that it was the video of lock-picking trick in action that appeared on a blog rather than blogging per se that truly did for the lock. It turns out that this type of lock - and not just Kryptonite's - has had problems for more than ten years. Stories about cylindrical locks surfaced in the specialist press and sometimes on TV several years before the New York lock ran into trouble. It was when the videos surfaced that people realised their mountain bikes might not be tied to lamp-post outside anymore.

But, how would a Kryptonite blog help? The product design was broken. It didn't do what it was meant to: keep bicycles safe from thieves. No amount of denial via blog was going to change the situation for the company. All it could do was withdraw the product and either replace it or refund everybody. That's good old-fashioned customer relations.

The Land Rover Discovery 3 case raised by Adrian Melrose at his Smartapps and HaveYourSay blogs is a fine example of how Land Rover's PR team could have handled the problem through traditional means (like replying to emails, phone calls, letters and stuff) and headed off any news coverage before it got too bad. OK, Land Rover could have posted entries on a blog that talked about what it was doing with complaints about the Disco 3. But would that have helped in this case? Who would have linked to those entries when we know bloggers like a public fight? HaveYourSay.com does not feature as a prominent site under the plain search term "land rover", at least not yet. But it does get high billing when you add words like 'problems'. And, let's face it, if you are buying a high-value item, you want to know about any problems and, perhaps more importantly, what the company does about problems.

One thing to note is that Melrose noted that Land Rover and the company's PR knew about his blog pretty early on but chose not to respond. The company sells about 200 000 cars a year for quite a lot of money not the millions of mass-market vehicles. And its people can't reply to emails? And Melrose remained pretty positive towards the company as a whole through much of this. He wasn't sticking his head out of the window and screaming: "I've had enough and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

It will be interesting to see how these short-term campaigns affect the Google page rankings. The Land Rover campaign started only a couple of months ago, so probably has not reached its highest point in Google. A search for 'kryptonite bicycle locks' reveals that Kryptonite's own site is having difficulty holding up against pages uploaded almost a year ago.

A look at the position of Nike and the other big global brands indicates to me that the brands that have caught the attention of pressure groups and anti-globalisation campaigners have yet to suffer the full onslaught of blog-powered Google bombing. That is probably only a matter of time. And the cure proposed by search-engine optimisers may be worse than what these companies perceive as the disease. To combat Google bombing, you pretty much have to do it yourself. And there are potentially thousands of campaigners out there with access to free blogs who can outlink you. Your company could try to nick a leaf out of the link farm book and do it automatically or start trying to recruit shill bloggers. (<Dr Evil>I shall call them shiggers.</Dr Evil>) But, that is likely to make the company look even worse when found out - even if they use sponsorship to get some high-profile blogging going on - and won't combat the source of the problem.

Now, the company might determine that search position per se may not be that important to the brand, especially as you can cover maybe one or two key terms but not all of the ones that may be used commonly by consumers. It is when sales suffer that companies react. That is often too late, but it is generally the case. And if they are bothered about aspects of their image, then they really need to engage directly with the problem, not worry about search engine optimisation and setting up a bunch of corporate bloggers.

On the Internet as much as anywhere else, people are going to call you names: meatballhead, neo-Calvinist, whatever. The issue is how companies react to bad news and the methods for that have not changed radically, although the average speed of response may start going up.

And, who knows? Google may decide change its page-ranking system once more.