Boris Johnson, his dead cat, and great SEO | Varn


2 July 2019

Boris Johnson, his dead cat, and great SEO

For those of you that follow politics, or the news for that matter, you would have seen that previously Boris Johnson and buses weren’t two things that were mentioned in a positive light together.

Last week, in a surprising turn of events, Boris (or perhaps his campaign team) managed to change the search landscape almost overnight.

Around the 20th June, if you typed in the term ‘boris bus’ into Google, you would have been supplied with stories and featured snippets on Boris Johnson’s Routemaster buses and other negative Brexit related news.

Last week Boris was interviewed by TalkRadio and was asked what he likes to do to relax, which led him to explain that he likes to paint model buses. Shortly after that interview, typing “boris bus” would then lead you to search results mentioning how much Boris likes to paint model buses. GENIUS.

Let’s look at this as if it were a content marketing campaign you were running for your client. Say the KPI was increasing the rankings of a specific keyword, or perhaps more generally the branded key term. Any marketer undergoing a brand PR campaign waiting for press to come in would consider the above coverage as a huge success, no doubt monitoring closely what affect this would have on your client’s rankings.

Deadcatting or just a good knowledge of SEO?

The idea of “deadcatting” is something that Lynton Crosby was renowned for, and indeed something that Boris himself was shown to , and it’s a technique that seems to work rather well in political situations (we are yet to attempt this technique in one of our meetings). It refers to the introduction of a dramatic, shocking, or sensationalist topic to divert discourse away from a more damaging topic.

Johnson had once described the strategy like this: “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

By Boris saying he likes to paint model buses, this has sparked conversation and made people want to talk about it, but it is cleverer than that. His campaign team were able to track that the term “boris bus” was searched for a lot and have effectively changed the entire narrative for that key phrase. It’s a really interesting example of how you can create and distribute content to control your company/personal brand.

So how quickly can we change the search landscape?

Whilst Boris Johnson is a politician and a lot of his interviews are reported about, this is impressive proof of how results in Google, and other search engines, can change so dramatically.

This has been proof of just how quickly old content can be superseded by new and has left people questioning how quickly SERPs really can change.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this as Google can change the order of results anywhere from 30 seconds to a few weeks. However, there are ways to get your name/business mentioned, get different angles of a story to show, and to get your content ranking higher more quickly.

So how did Boris do this?

  1. Relevance – by getting Boris to talk about painting a bus, both the terms “Boris” and “bus” will almost always be in a header or sentence together. Meaning these positive (or less Brexit focused) stories will be seen as relevant to this particular search term and will show up.


  1. Popularity/constant content – the Boris bus saga has been going on for months, and Google is aware of this. So, any pages mentioning this key word are likely to be crawled more quickly as Google knows that is a hot topic that people want to be updated on. Also, sites such as News sites who post regular content on this topic and are visited a lot, are likely to rank higher.


  1. Controversial/interesting topic – Boris and his team most likely knew that saying he painted buses would either confuse or surprise people, meaning it would be more talked about and would be picked up not only on socials but also by publications reporting on all things political.


Boris and his team not only moved the conversation to highlight something more positive, but also pushed negative results further down the page. This makes it harder for people to gain a thorough snapshot of all the information, so in SEO terms for Boris and his team, it’s been a roaring success.

Some people would say that this tactic is a bit underhand, which it may well be, but hasn’t PR always been this way? It’s possibly just that now it has moved online and is under more people’s radars.

His team clearly have knowledge of how SEO works, and how search engines work and used this to their advantage, which is what thousands of marketers do every day.

Google does change its listings regularly when listing news stories though so it will be interesting if in the long run that the ‘Brexit Bus Claims’ story climbs back to the top of Google again.  If so then depending on the Conservative leadership results Boris’ campaign team may have already done their job anyway…….

Article by: Tom, Managing Director of Varn Digital Marketing More articles by Tom

Share this article:

Sign up for the latest SEO insights

Stay up to date with the very latest search marketing insights and news from Varn

Perform Better

Sign Up for Varn Insights
Sign Up for Latest Insights

Keep up to date with the latest search marketing news, insights, algorithm changes and research