Can bad PR be good for SEO?

They say that any publicity is good publicity, we take a look at The North Face’s recent Wikipedia stunt to see if this still holds true.

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Outdoor lifestyle brand, The North Face recently landed itself in hot water following a badly misjudged SEO campaign that involved hijacking Wikipedia pages for popular travel destinations.

In an effort to expose The North Face logo to travel-curious Google users, generic images were replaced with alternative shots featuring people sporting The North Face gear.

One of the ‘hacked’ images uploaded to Wikipedia (spot the subtle branding)
One of the ‘hacked’ images uploaded to Wikipedia (spot the subtle branding)

The brand was subsequently slammed by almost everybody, including The Wikipedia Foundation, for its unethical and shortsighted approach. The creative agency behind the campaign, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, also caught its fair share of criticism.

The agency’s biggest mistake wasn’t necessarily the act itself – looking at it from a purely creative point of view it’s hard to argue the idea wasn’t original – but releasing a video that explained, in detail, how it gamed Wikipedia for The North Face’s benefit, was very shortsighted. Not only was the video an admission of guilt, but it was also incredibly self-congratulatory in tone, which only served to infuriate people further. 

In the weeks that followed, the story inspired more than 300 articles and news stories which collectively generated over 30k social shares. That’s a lot of buzz around a campaign that most considered to be an epic failure.

Top pieces of content for "north face + wikipedia", via Buzzsumo
Top pieces of content for “north face + wikipedia”, via Buzzsumo

But the wins didn’t stop there. I noticed that a few of the sites damning The North Face for its antics were linking back to the brand’s website/s, which got me thinking – could these sites, through writing about how not to do SEO, actually be helping The North Face by boosting its link profile? 

Spoiler alert; yes.

Bad PR delivers great links

I ran some of the most shared articles from the aforementioned Buzzsumo report through Link Research Tools and discovered around 20 links to various The North Face domains, including, most notably, followed links from www.fastcompany.com (Why The North Face manipulating Wikipedia confirms our darkest fears of advertising), fstoppers.com (North Face Caught Gaming Wikipedia After They Bragged About It) and www.deseretnews.com (The North Face ‘hacked’ Wikipedia to get free marketing, and the site’s moderators are not happy about it).

I draw attention to these three sites in particular because each has a Domain Authority (DA) ranging from 88 to 92, which in SEO terms makes these links incredibly valuable. 

There were also links from www.smartcompany.com.au (DA 68), www.creativebloq.com (DA 87), www.impactbnd.com (DA 61) and adventureblog.net (DA 27), as well as more from mid-tier and lower quality blogs and news sites. 

Leo Burnett Tailor Made didn’t come off too badly either. As well as capitalising on the coverage from www.deseretnews.com, fstoppers.com, and www.creativebloq.com, the agency also received links from www.dpreview.com (DA 88), designtaxi.com (DA 78), www.diyphotography.net (DA 72), amongst others. 

While this was a decent return for both parties, I can’t help but feel The North Face missed a massive opportunity by posting its subsequent apology on Twitter. 

This Tweet was linked to more than 150 times from the likes of theguardian.com, vice.com, nytimes.com, pcmag.com, adage.com, cnet.com, bbc.com, engadget.com, and many other major online news channels. It’s not unreasonable to assume that, had The North Face posted its apology on its website, a good proportion of these links would have been directed there instead. 

Short-term pain for long-term gain

There is an old saying, that all publicity is good publicity. I think this still holds true in most cases, this one included. 

No brand in their right mind would want to be caught up in a negative PR storm by choice, but ultimately storms pass and in time become forgotten entirely. In real terms, the internet is a fickle place; stories disappear as quickly as they arrive. This is highlighted in the graph below, which shows a spike in content output and engagements in the week or so after the campaign, followed by no noise at all.

Engagements & content published over time via Buzzsumo
Engagements & content published over time via Buzzsumo

Looking at this from an SEO point of view, the links obtained from the coverage will hold their value long into the future. Ultimately Google does not care about sentiment, and once the dust settles on this, I suspect The North Face won’t either. Covering the story, SmartCompany asked; ‘North Face traded its integrity by ‘hacking’ Wikipedia. Was it worth it?’. Given the evidence above, I’d say the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

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