Editor’s note: “Ask an SEO” is a weekly column by technical SEO expert Jenny Halasz. Come up with your hardest SEO question and fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!
Today’s Ask an SEO question is from Matthew of Sydney, Australia. He writes:
Can/does Google demote a site’s ranking position based on negative inference or semantics in the content around your brand name on other websites?
I.e. Some people had died at my client’s location and this made the news – obviously [people died at] + [brand] is a negative experience (to put it lightly) so can Google spot this and act?
In actuality, we saw rankings dip after a spike in negative press and link acquisition.
Google can do anything they want to.
But let me start this answer by saying that the jury is solidly still out on this one.
I don’t have a definitive answer for you. But I will tell you what I think are the factors.
Ultimately, no, I don’t think that your brand would see your rankings suffer as a result of negative press, in fact, people have been generating bad press for years as a strategy to get more links.
There’s a great New York Times story that is almost 10 years old about a merchant who purposely angered his customers to obtain links from consumer review sites because it ultimately helped his business.
Moz also did a comparison of several timely stories that went viral in 2016 and their after-effects. The results were very mixed – with some working and others not:
- REI’s #OptOutside campaign? Didn’t help organic traffic at all.
- Turing Pharma’s ridiculous drug prices? Great windfall for organic traffic and links even though the reaction was uniformly negative.
But that old saying that “no press is bad press” may not always be so true.
With the advent of RankBrain, it’s clear that Google is attempting to discern the sentiment behind articles and mentions. Whether they’ve succeeded at that or not remains to be seen, but it only makes sense that negative press about a brand should result in lower rankings in most cases.
I say “most cases” because there are outliers.
How about Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, or the Pulse nightclub in Orlando?
Objectively, most people would agree that those brands shouldn’t suffer because of the actions of a terrorist. But how would Google sort that out algorithmically?
The ultimate answer is that I don’t believe they have sorted that out yet, but I think it’s something they want to achieve.
Reputation is a pretty big factor in Google’s most recent Quality Raters Guidelines, so presumably they are trying to develop some reliable element to measure this.
From an article on The SEMPost:
“Google states that a webpage cannot be given a High rating if the site has a negative reputation at all. They also focus on fraudulent and malicious reputations, and state websites with that bad reputation should always be given a Lowest rating.
When looking at negative reputation in malicious or fraudulent areas, it includes things such as financial fraud reports, overwhelmingly negative reviews, negative reviews from watchdog sites and negative news reports.”
Examples from the Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines (pdf):
This example certainly indicates that Google may be using BBB ratings in part to make their decisions, as well as publicly available legal and fraud filings.
In terms of why your specific site dropped after an influx of news mentions and link acquisitions, there are several possible scenarios, from someone purposely sabotaging your SEO (I believe this does happen) to all the links being directed somewhere other than the main brand site (part of what happened to REI’s #OptOutside campaign). I can’t say for sure without looking at your data.
I think that eventually negative press and links will have a negative impact on SEO. But I don’t think Google’s there yet, and that what you experienced with your client likely has another cause.
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Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
Screenshot taken by Jenny Halasz, January 2018