Perusing a book catalogue recently, I came across a book called Tankograd – The Formation of a Soviet Company Town: Cheliabinsk, 1900s-1950s. Thinking it might be a good present for my history buff father, I did some “Googling” for Cheliabinsk. I was astonished to spot a link to a documentary about how Cheliabinsk (or Chelyabinsk) is “THE MOST CONTAMINATED SPOT ON THE PLANET.” How had I never heard of it?
Looking more closely at my search results, I was puzzled. There was the ubiquitous Wikipedia article, the inflammatory documentary, then some tourist sites and hotel ads. But not a whole lot about environmental devastation.
Then, moving to page 2, I came across an article about SEO or “search engine optimization.”
Search engine optimization is used in marketing to manipulate results rankings, so (for example) one business offering a particular service can appear higher or more frequently in a search engine’s output. However, if that business has received much bad press that will appear more frequently also. “SEO professionals” try to improve the image of a business by deliberately influencing the indexing and ranking systems to try to get the good ahead of the bad.
Evidently, the Russians, concerned that the fuss about extensive nuclear contamination was hindering tourism and investment, paid thousands of dollars to consultants to massage the area’s online profile to downplay the negativity.
In all fairness, no one really knew much of what was going on at Cheylabinsk at all until recently, as it was a “closed city” until 1992. However, by manipulating search engines, the Russian authorities can continue to keep people from finding out. What else isn’t Google telling you?