Bell Pottinger, Google and Wikipedia

Update 16:50, 8 December: When I wrote this post, it was not clear just how far the "dark arts" adopted by Bell Pottinger on behalf of its clients went. In particular, it was not at all evident what was meant by "sorting out" a client's Wikipedia entry.

Well now, thanks to some assiduous digging by the blogger Tim Ireland, we know far more. His investigation shows that someone at Bell Pottinger appears to have spent many hours on Wikipedia, editing entries on behalf of various clients.

There is nothing wrong in itself in someone trying to correct perceived inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles - after all, that process happens every day and helps the online encyclopaedia get closer to an objective account.

What is disturbing is the fact that the edits are carried out by an anonymous person who does not declare an interest. All rather reminiscent, in fact, of the case of Johan Hari, the journalist who used an invented "friend" to edit various Wikipedia entries.

And there's a bigger question here for the future of Wikipedia. Should it continue to give free rein to anonymous editors who may have axes to grind?

Screenshot of Wikipedia Image copyright bbc

Mastering Google's search algorithm and Wikipedia's editing system: are these essential skills for the modern PR executive or lobbyist? So it would seem, if you read today's expose of the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Among the claims recorded by an undercover reporter was that the firm could "solve" a Google problem. One client, embarrassed by the fact that a former employee's detention in Guantanamo Bay kept appearing in Google searches, had asked for help. "It took us three months," a Bell Pottinger executive told the reporter, "but after three months we searched down the first 10 pages of Google - you couldn't find it within the first 10 pages."

Now there is nothing particularly shady about the practice of trying to influence the way a company or organisation appears in Google searches; indeed, it's part of a multi-billion dollar industry called search engine optimisation (SEO).

And Bell Pottinger has been upfront about its involvement in this industry. A story in PR Week in 2007 says the firm has launched an SEO division. Its chairman at the time, Kevin Murray, is quoted as saying:

"Previously SEO has only been used to make sure a brand is noticed and high-up on a relevant search. What we are doing is taking the world's biggest reputation management tool - Google - and turning it into a tool for crisis management."

The search engine optimisation industry is engaged in a constant battle of wits with Google. Every time the search firm tweaks its algorithm to try to make it more objective, SEO firms refine their techniques to try to make sure their clients stay on page one of the results or in some cases disappear from view.

But, according to SEO experts, questionable practices can creep in. Among them is something known in the trade as "astroturfing". This involves planting positive stories and comments on the web that appear to come from customers or individuals but are instead part of a concerted campaign by a PR firm.

Bell Pottinger is also quoted in the investigation as saying it can sort out a client's Wikipedia entry. This, of course, is not difficult - anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry. But usually the online encyclopaedia's vast army of amateur editors will correct anything inaccurate or obviously biased very quickly.

Whatever the lobbyists may have promised their apparent clients from Uzbekistan, maintaining and improving the way a business is represented on the internet is a complex business, with no guarantee of success. No wonder the likes of Bell Pottinger charge such lavish fees.