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Businesses of any kind can fall victim to negative coverage in the press and online media. It’s a fact of business life and a real headache to deal with.

But is there a silver lining? Do the links from authority news sites generated by such stories bring a search engine optimisation benefit?

Links play a very important role in determining your position in the search engine results – the more inbound links from quality sites, the higher your rankings will be. And so any serious SEO campaign will have a significant effort in link building.

It would be hard to imagine a more negative set of stories than those generated by the current controversy over unfair bank charges in the UK (see The Independent). 

The controversy has generated a lot of negative coverage for UK banks, but has also given many of the banks links from authority news sites like this one from the BBC, Bank apology for charges letter.

So the bank gets negative publicity, which of course can happen to any business, but is the pill sweetened a little by the number of quality links the story generates?

According to Aaron Wall of SEOBook.com:

“It is a flaw of the current relevancy algorithms to assume that a link makes a business trustworthy. On the commercial parts of the web, most links appear as a result of an ad budget, a public relations budget, nepotism, or controversy.”

Wall explains that Google or any other search engine cannot distinguish from positive or negative press:

“Current search algorithms encourage unethical business practices because they can't separate good from bad. They only care about who gets citations, which makes some people do just about anything for a link.”

Mark Nunney of The Website Marketing Company agrees:

“Links mean prizes when Google is doing the judging. And Google's algorithm doesn't care about your good or bad publicity. Google cares most about the source page's link power, legitimacy and relevance.

“Large media sites certainly have power and a link within a story on one looks like the real thing because it is. Plus, if you’re lucky or you've been smart, that link will be relevant to your site.

“That wins you the jackpot in Google's eyes and it's why we love links from big media sites. So what if the story that got you that big prize is about you selling your granny? Google doesn't care - only you can decide if Google's love is more important than your granny's.”

Brand related keywords

Negative stories can however do damage when they appear in important keyword search results.

Wall continues:

“Where a business runs into problems is when ‘bad press’ appears in the search engine results for its core brand related keywords.

“But typically that stuff can be drowned out by sub-domains, alternate corporate sites, and using a press page to pump up the good coverage a business gets.”

I checked this morning and Wall makes a good point.

A Google search for the brand name of one of the biggest banka at the heart of the bank charges story shows no mention of the controversy until page 9 of the search engine results – buried where no-one can see it.

The same brand name search on Google News showed two negative stories on the first page of results – at positions 2 and 7.

Doing a Google search on “bank charges” however showed over 2m results and all ten on the first page were highly relevant to the search. The same search on Google News generated over 200 highly relevant results.

This shows that if you’re doing research on a company or brand name, Google News will provide more interesting results than Google itself.

PR consultant Karen Durham-Diggins believes in creating your own side of any story and if PRs and optimisers work in tandem the results will be far more beneficial:

“If the decision is to put out a release to counter balance negative criticism, or respond to the problem then working together becomes crucial and using keyword research will also help you surmise which other phrases journalists could use when reporting the story.“

What does this mean for your online strategy?

In my book, links from media sites are hugely important for three reasons:

  • They are read by a large number of people and any news story negative or positive will bring a surge in web traffic.
  • News stories spread. Other media comment on the story, and bloggers give a way of almost instant reaction and tons more links.
  • The resulting links influence Google results and will send the site up the search engine rankings.
I think you’ve got to prepare for possible negative stories:
  • When a negative story breaks about your company, you’ve got to do the SEO work on your website to make sure that your side of the story appears in search engine results. The search engine performance of Mattel in the recent toy recall gives an example of this working well. This comes about through public relations efforts and search engine optimisation efforts working in tandem.
  • You need to monitor the appearance of negative stories in your search engines results, particularly for your main keywords where their appearance in the results can do you most damage.
Of course on the other hand, if you want to draw attention to bad practice by a company you also need to think about SEO:
  • Journalists should be aware of important keywords when they write and should include them in their copy. Using good keywords will help their stories be found on Google – as a result more people will read the story and more journalists will pick up on the story.
  • For consumer groups and others attempting to influence debate, they’ve got to realize that their ‘opponents’ will usually understand search and that they need to think of the SEO tactics that will help get their message seen by more people.

Google is not going to change its algorithm anytime soon to differentiate between good, bad or indifferent opinion on each of the references it finds. It will only be concerned with the authority of the site that links.

The conclusion has to be that from an SEO point of view at least, every link from an authority site is a valuable one.

Ken McGaffin is the chief marketing officer of Wordtracker.com

Ken McGaffin

Published 5 September, 2007 by Ken McGaffin

Ken McGaffin is chief marketing officer at Wordtracker and a contributor to Econsultancy.

6 more posts from this author

Comments (1)

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

Hi Ken

An interesting post and a point of view that I too have held for a long time i.e. that from a pure SEO point of view then bad news can be great for link building.

I thought that at the time of Bigmouthmedia's temporary disappearance from Google for their alleged malpractice which caused quite a stir in the search marketing world and led to them getting loads of links on highly useful keywords from highly relevant sites (including ours). Same was true for BMW's temporary de-listing.

I don't think there is much evidence at the moment that search engines are clever enough to accurately detect collective sentiment in order to apply an up or down-weighting to search results rankings. But it's hard to believe they are not working on this and already playing around with it.

So in the mid to long term it seems a pretty risky game to play to court controversy as link bait.

Ashley Friedlein

about 9 years ago

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