How The North Face Used Wikipedia to Game Google

We all know that Google can play an important part in the success of a business. Most customers click on one of the first two or three results that show up in their search results when using the online search engine, which is why SEO (search engine optimization) has turned into an important skill over the past few years. But, as it turns out, there are ways to game the system in your favor, as iconic outdoor brand The North Face found out recently.

According to Ad Age, TNF recently worked with advertising agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made on a project that was designed to put the brand front and center for travelers who were using Google to search for information on potential destinations to visit. Ad execs knew that photos hosted on Wikipedia pages are often the first to appear in search results, so they hatched an idea to insert North Face gear into those photos. In order to do that, the outdoor company and the ad agency actually sent hikers to popular destinations around the world, including Brazil’s Guarita State Park, Farol do Mampimptuba, Cuillin in Scotland and Peru’s Huayna Picchu. Photos were taken at those sites with people using TNF products front center. Those images were then inserted into the Wikipedia pages that corresponded to those places and as predicted were soon amongst the first displayed within Google search results.

This unique campaign was later shared with Ad Age, which brought it to the attention of Wikipedia admins. Those individuals then began removing the images citing violations of user agreement terms. Some of the images were allowed to remain however, although The North Face logo was usually photoshopped out of the photo. William Beutler, CEO of agency Beutler Ink and a volunteer Wikipedia editor is quoted by Ad Age as saying, “What The North Face and Leo Burnett did wasn’t clever or impressive—it was duplicitous, using Wikipedia’s openness against it, and in fact was directly contradictory to Wikipedia’s Terms of Use.”

For those who don’t know, Wikipedia is a nonprofit website that serves as a modern day online encyclopedia with entires on just about anything imaginable. The site is maintained and updated by a dedicated group of volunteers who try to comb through entires to look for accuracy and cull out anything that isn’t true or potentially controversial. As you can probably imagine, that’s a pretty big job when anyone with a Wikipedia account can sign on and edit the entires. For the most part however, it has become a trusted source for at least a cursory background knowledge on a given topic.

Most Wikipedia entires include a photo for the topic and since the site is well regarded and receives a lot of traffic, those images usually appear high on Google rankings. The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made took advantage of this to put the company’s products front and center. It seems some backlash was expected however, as the ad agency was already anticipating a removal of the images from Wikipedia and admonishment from the organization.

Still, as any good ad exec will tell you, any press is good press.

Kraig Becker