Global outdoor apparel brand The North Face is on the retreat this week, having apologised for an SEO stunt that damaged their marketing reputation. The incident has brought a renewed focus to the value of white-hat SEO practices and the importance of integrity and reputation in the marketing world.
The North Face seized on a popular target among SEO agencies – the coveted featured snippet.
A featured snippet is an expanded search result appearing at the top of the page, often featuring an image and an excerpt of text from a web page that Google thinks will succinctly satisfy a user query.
For many queries about topics of general knowledge, Google’s featured snippet is from the topic’s Wikipedia page. Searches for popular tramping or adventure destinations, for example, would feature Wikipedia snippets. Importantly, Wikipedia is a publicly edited and sourced online encyclopedia. Any user can write, edit, correct, or add to any Wikipedia article. This is where The North Face decided to exploit the system.
The North Face took advantage of Wikipedia’s public editing platform to add images that featured branded North Face apparel. Editing Wikipedia pages for destinations like the Cabo Peninsula in California, the Guarita State Park in Brazil, and several others, North Face manipulated Google into featuring images of their branded outerwear in the resulting snippets.
Rather predictably, not well. Wikipedia was not impressed, immediately removing the images as soon as they were made aware of the stunt and issuing a public statement of condemnation.
“Yesterday, we were disappointed to learn that The North Face, an outdoor recreation product company, and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, an ad agency retained by The North Face, unethically manipulated Wikipedia. They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.
“When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry. Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world.”
The fallout continued among the greater digital marketing community. Many SEO experts condemned the strategy as unethical. North Face has issued an apology and vowed to do better in the future. So far, the brand has avoided any legal consequences for their actions. Restoring their reputation in the digital marketing arena, however, may take some work.
Manipulative SEO tactics are black-hat. Plain and simple. As you develop your next creative SEM strategy, remember that undermining public trust in services like Wikipedia, which depends on neutrality and integrity to ensure their credibility, can make you look exploitative and opportunist. People are happy to reject brands that try to manipulate or cheat the system.