Recently, the PR firm representing a very famous and lavishly wealthy public figure called me. One of his projects had gotten a lot of bad press. They asked how much it would cost to remove the negative information from Google.
I looked at the search results: A hit piece in the New York Times. A municipal judgment document from the state supreme court. A world-famous blog (PageRank 7) with a post criticizing it. Negative forum backlash. A dedicated opposition website. I told the PR firm that his situation couldn’t be cured or “erased” – not even if I charged $5,000,000 up front and I were to hire an entire dedicated team of blackbelt SEOs and PR mavens. Even then, we might only be able to move the results it a little. It didn’t matter how rich this person was – this instance of online negative publicity was virtually unfixable. Not even a presidential pardon could clear the search engines. You’d have to bribe a Google quality engineer or wait for a Y3K meltdown. Way unlikely.
“Easy” Online Reputation Management Scenarios
- Copied or Stolen Information
- One or Two Isolated Listings
- Low Ranking Pages
- Information is Hosted on a Third Party Site
- Verifiably False & Deliberately Defamatory Information
If someone is stealing your copyrighted work, you have some legal leverage to try and force removal. Politely explain your legal case to the Webmaster. If that fails, you can file a DCMA takedown notice with the ISP – or with the search engines. If this fails, then you may have grounds to force removal in a court of law.
A single blemish is much more manageable than an “outbreak” of bad information.
You may be able to remove this by appealing to a moderator or citing a terms of service.
Here you may have some legal leverage. Laws protect publishers who are reporting facts (“This person was arrested“) and stating opinions (“I think this restaurant totally sucks“), but they often do not protect people who are deliberately defaming or making untrue accusations.
“Impossible” Online Reputation Management Scenarios
In my experience, situations where “true facts” are reported by multiple news sources and government agencies are the most difficult situations to erase.
- Multiple negative search results
- National News Incident “Picked up” by Dozens of Sources
- Deliberate Reputation “Assassination”
- Government and Military Injunctions, Judgments, and Records
- Privately Published, Anonymously Registered “Smear” Sites
If there is a whole swarm of negative listings, it can be very difficult to displace all of them.
This is an extremely difficult situation to cure. News sites tend to be hardy and difficult to “wash out.”
If a grudge-holding, SEO-savvy individual has gone out of their way to post negative information about you on multiple websites, and then intentionally optimized the sites and and built links to the nasty pages – it can be extremely difficult to ever wipe clean. Big companies and famous individuals with hundreds-of-thousands of search results for their same are often strong enough to protect against this. Small companies and individuals with little online presence are incredibly vulnerable.
Just because you’ve cleared something up with the law doesn’t mean that Google forgets about you. Google loves to index government sites and will often rank pages on them very highly – for years to come.
Sometimes Google seems to “lock in” on the most authoritative negative site and display it right near the top… keeping it cemented there despite all effort to improve your image with SEO. Google appears to have a “diversity algorithm” that will serve up weak but semantically critical or negative pages so that searchers can find the type of content they are looking for. I doubt this “PayPal sucks” site will ever leave the front page:
What Can Be Done in “Impossible” Situations
Even when the damage is deep – there are things you can do to, at least, make the situation more bearable.
- Optimize one “explanatory” page.
- Change your company name.
When it is impossible to outrank multiple pages, you can focus your efforts into getting just one “explanatory” page into the top of the search results. Make this page stand out with special text characters in the title tag – but keep it 65 characters or less so the whole thing will display. Put a well-crafted sentence or two in the meta description tag – the two black sentences that show up below the blue headline in the search results. Keep the meta description less than 175 characters or it will get chopped-off and replaced with a “…“. On this SEO-optimized page you can tell your side of the story. Then build quality links to it – SLOWLY. If you build low quality links or you add links to a new page too fast, it can get kicked out of the search results. This won’t “make it all go away,” but it will let you have your say. And ranking just one page is usually attainable.
If your online reputation is destroyed on multiple authority sites, it can be much easier to change the name of your business — or even your own personal name – than it would be to completely overtake negative pages in the search engines. This is dramatic and extremely unfortunate, but sadly, true in many severe cases. The amount of labor required to “make everything go away” runs in the $100,000 – $10,000,000 range and could easily take years – if one were able to assemble a competent enough “dream team” to do it. This is the cold, hard truth that inexperienced or disreputable “online reputation management firms” don’t want you to know.