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Cheese, wine, and whistles: Manipulating Google for fun and profit with Elon Musk and Boris Johnson

The Cambridge Analytica scandal made it clear once and for all how public opinion can be manipulated. To do this, the manipulators used Facebook data in particular. So, is manipulation no longer possible since the revelation of this scandal?

Search engine algorithms reliably process search queries; manipulation is introduced into search engines from the outside. How does this work in Google? idealo Head of SEO, Malte Landwehr’s presentation at our recent Searchmetrics Summit told an exciting story about buses and cheese, and what SEO consequences this has for companies and brands.

Positive or negative connotations – that is what matters

“Let’s go to Google, and we type in Facebook. If you do it today, there could be something about layoffs. But when we type in Facebook whistle, Google suggests to complete the search into Facebook whistleblower, Facebook whistleblower BBC, etc.” Malte Landwehr, idealo Head of SEO

Malte suggests to open Google and type the keywords ‘Facebook whistle’ into the search box. Google Suggest opens directly below the search box and suggests related search queries.

auto suggest results when typing 'Facebook whistle' into Google

Fig. 1: Google Suggest shows search suggestions with negative connotations for the keywords “facebook whistle”

The result: search suggestions with negative connotations, even if people generally tend to sympathize with whistleblowers.

auto suggestions when typing the words 'Tesla whistle' into Google

Fig. 2: For “Tesla whistle”, only three search suggestions with negative connotations appear in Suggest

‘Tesla whistle’, however, only generates three negative search suggestions – why is that? How do these qualitatively different proposals come about, even though whistleblowers in both cases published information that has negative implications for both companies, but only with Facebook does Google actually reflect this sentiment? There were whistleblowers at Tesla as well, so why doesn’t Google Suggest reflect this trend?

“Blow the whistle on Tesla”

“This sounds very stupid, but it works. And if it works, it’s probably not stupid. Morally, we can find all of this very questionable. But if we just look at the effort they put into it and the outcome they generated – it worked. They executed this amazingly well.”

Malte Landwehr, idealo Head of SEO

In the end, it’s all about generating a favorable outcome. In order to prove this crucial point, Malte explained how Tesla ‘blew the whistle’, by actually producing a whistle which can still be ordered today.

When Tesla was informed that a whistleblower would soon publish sensitive internal information, the company decided to produce this whistle within a very short time. On December 1, 2021, Elon Musk sent out a tweet to this effect: “Blow the whistle on Tesla!”

Musk hijacked the “attention economy” – all the media reported on it, and a huge amount of content was created, which literally overwhelmed the whistleblower content that had been leaked. As a result, this also generated a corresponding search intent in search engines, which in turn was reflected in Suggest and in the rankings.

For this reason, unlike Facebook, Google correctly assumed that people who entered “Tesla whistle” also searched for it instead of “whistleblower” as on Facebook.

Boris Johnson: mastermind of manipulation

“There was a bus in London decorated with claims that Brexit would save the country £350 million every week, and they can use it to fund their NHS, the National Health Service, and everything will be better. This statement was basically not true. Not at all.“

Malte Landwehr, idealo Head of SEO

Malte reminds us that both as London’s mayor and as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson repeatedly attracted attention with odd interviews he gave to various high-reach media. The goal of this strategy was to conceal political missteps using Google to manipulate public opinion.

For example, the disaster surrounding London’s new Routemaster city buses disappeared into the depths of the web after Johnson made completely nonsensical statements in the media about building model buses from wine crates. Coverage of these statements triggered a flood of search queries on Google that displaced negative search queries and Google Suggest results related to Boris Johnson.

Research showed that before the wine crate buses interview, 100% of Google Suggest and search results on page one that were displayed in connection with Boris Johnson had negative connotations. After the interview, it was only 20%.

Additionally, when news broke that British Government members had flouted Covid guidelines to meet for wine and cheese during a ‘work meeting’, it was seized upon by the British press as “partygate.” Soon after, Johnson was quoted in interview saying, “I don’t work from home. The cheese will distract you.” As a result, negative coverage of the British Government’s party-gate incidents were glossed over by search suggestions and results, and keywords with negative connotations no longer appeared in Google Suggest prompts.

Externally triggered search queries

“The important part is to understand the principle that Google Suggest, or Autocomplete, is triggered by the popularity, and especially the velocity, of content. A lot of new content on a topic can influence Google Suggest and what people are searching for.”

Malte Landwehr, idealo Head of SEO

Malte is right, most of us don’t have the ability to say or tweet something that thousands of journalists write about, and millions of people search for. And yet, lots of content on a topic influences Google Suggest and what people search for. So if everyone searches for “iPhone price comparison,” the first Google Suggest for iPhone will probably be “iPhone price comparison.” If everyone searches for “Samsung Galaxy explodes on airplane,” the first Suggest will be “Samsung Galaxy explodes on airplane.”

This principle also works on a smaller scale. For companies for example, it doesn’t matter whether they are active in the B2B or B2C sector, companies can use paid trade media, speak in a podcast, or rely on a PR agency to generate reach and attention in industry circles. If the story the company or its products are telling is relevant and resonates with trade media and audiences, people are very likely to search for it in search engines. For this reason, it is critical for companies to take control over published information. If this is not possible, corrective, externally published content can be used to counteract this and influence search engine intent.


“So, if you want to manipulate Google, maybe don’t try to manipulate Google. Maybe try to manipulate the data that Google is working with.”

Malte Landwehr, idealo Head of SEO

Manipulation is possible. Boris Johnson and Elon Musk manipulate Google for their own purposes, and the strategy behind it can be of great benefit to companies or brands too. Relevance and a good SEO strategy is key to this.

Users and customers want relevant, positive experiences so great SEO strategies should bear in mind the maxim of developing a good product that solves a specific problem, and deliver great landing pages with error-free text written according to SEO criteria that communicate relevant information which Google can crawl and index.

In this light, Malte believes SERP manipulation a la Johnson or Musk turns into something positive, and therein lies the mission of SEO.

For other SEO insights that will help your business flourish online in 2023, check out the sessions from our Summit.