Dealing With “Impossible” Online Reputation Challenges

by Brett Borders

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.

Big Wig

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
  • 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.

  • One or Two Isolated Listings
  • A single blemish is much more manageable than an “outbreak” of bad information.

  • Low Ranking Pages
  • An isolated listing at #7 might be fairly easy to push off. A #1 or #2 might need heavy social media marketing and SEO campaigns.

  • Information is Hosted on a Third Party Site
  • You may be able to remove this by appealing to a moderator or citing a terms of service.

  • Verifiably False & Deliberately Defamatory Information
  • 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
  • If there is a whole swarm of negative listings, it can be very difficult to displace all of them.

  • National News Incident “Picked up” by Dozens of Sources
  • This is an extremely difficult situation to cure. News sites tend to be hardy and difficult to “wash out.”

  • Deliberate Reputation “Assassination”
  • 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.

  • Government and Military Injunctions, Judgments, and Records
  • 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.

  • Privately Published, Anonymously Registered “Smear” Sites
  • 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.

  1. Optimize one “explanatory” page.
  2. Optimize one page to tell your side of the story

    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.

  3. Change your company name.
  4. 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.

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  • http://www.thesemfirm.com Hayden Dell

    Nice post Brett. Things must be pretty bad when you are changing your name or the name of your business. :)

  • Brett Borders

    Hayden,

    I know it is dramatic and it is always difficult for me to recommend, but oftentimes people who actively seeking out online reputation management help are in very, very bad situations. I don’t know of anything else that could reasonably be done to help – in some cases. If you do know of anything to help in the “impossible” cases – please feel free to add your ideas below!

  • http://www.andybeal.com Andy Beal

    Some great points. I would probably never say a situation was impossible, but certainly maybe a low chance of success (less than 5%).

    One note on changing your company name. There’s nothing to stop a determined detractor from targeting the new name. My advice is to stay with the current name. :-)

  • http://www.i-com.net/blog/ Mindy

    As somebody who used to work for a consumer review site, we found that in the case of small businesses if they were willing to speak to the unhappy customers and resolve the situation often the unhappy customers were willing to remove the negative websites/reviews/etc. Turning the situation around might warrant a follow up news article as well….

    I would guess this is of little help if the situation has ended up in court already.

  • http://www.brandseye.com Tim Shier

    I must agree, some excellent points and regarding the changing of the company name: In my opinion the changing of a company name would never work out well :(

    1) if you register a new domain its going to take a long time to start ranking, during this time anybody who comments about your brand will rank higher and you will effectively go go backwards.

    2) typically bad ORM problems source from particular service/marketing problem and unless these are resolved the problems are just going to follow one – no matter what your company name is.

    Its really unfortunate but true :(

    Great post!

  • http://www.kensavage.com Ken Savage

    Hey Jack Black’s new movie wasn’t that bad. :)

  • Brett Borders

    Andy,

    I would never say a situation was truly impossible either – that’s why I enclose “impossible” in quotes. But I have been approached by several situations that are more or less “impossible” for the “average company” or individual to afford to manage. I want to help but know I don’t have the resources to help them as one person, and I know of no way to affordably make a team and scale a quality services. It would be too labor intensive and require too much expert internet marketing talent.

    As for changing the company name, I agree that this is probably not a good idea if you have a determined detractor or ‘reputation assassin’ – but I still DO recommend it if there is some lingering old news coverage or government site coverage that is out of date – facts without a lot of negative charge or passion behind it. I frankly don’t know anything else to recommend in some situations. I can’t think of anything they could afford or reasonably accomplish themselves to mask the negative information.

    @Mindy,

    This is a great point. If you “make it right” for a disgruntled customer, they are more willing to bury their grudge and remove feedback on a case they feel has been well taken care of. Better yet, make it right “right away” – before the person has any desire to post anything.

    @Tim Shier,

    I would agree that bad customer service and business practices are one of the quickest ways to get into reputation trouble, but they are not the most common reason people need online reputation management help. Most of the people I have spoken with are dealing with: 1.) a news story 2.) a somewhat irrational attack from a competitor/former employee or someone with a vested interest in defaming them.

    In short, a majority people who have contacted me seem rather “innocent” and undeserving of ongoing bad coverage. For instance, one guy’s name got irrationally picked up by a spam script and was getting inappropriately plastered all over there web. But yes, there are also a number of cases where they clearly burned people and “deserve” the bad publicity – and I decline to help in those cases.

    – Glad you guys like the post. Please subscribe to the RSS feed and check out the rest of the ORM articles on Copy Brighter!

  • http://himerus.com Jake Strawn

    Very good information… with a twist of humor…

    In the case that they do pay you 5 million, I’ll be your lead ninja!!! I’ll burn down that google data center for a cool million! :D

  • Brett Borders

    @Jake,

    It’s great to know there are true ninjas like you who can be called on in times of need. ;)

  • Bob Rosner

    I was once contacted in behalf of an individual who had a very unfortunate association with a public servant. As a result of the public servant’s very sleazy dealings my client’s reputation was terribly smeared in a regional blog site. Despite extensive content creation, numerous linking and optimization throughout there’s one story in particular that has not been dislodged from #1 for my client’s name.

    Although the blog gets only a few thousand visits a month, and the offending page probably is viewed only by my client and a handful of others I was asked to keep trying. My latest suggestion was to make an offer to purchase the blog. If successful the page will be removed and the site itself will eventually be killed.

    When all else fails throwing enough money at the problem may work.

  • Brett Borders

    @Bob,

    Yes, this is good thinking. I have toyed with the idea on several cases before, but I have never tried it.

    You should be extremely careful when trying to buy a site not to open yourself up to extortion or a situation that makes the problem worse. I recommend contacting them under a pseudonym and trying to buy the blog for reasons other than the reputation issue. Test the waters first.

  • http://www.utahwebservices.com Utah SEO

    I think that is why at the end of the day it is wise to just keep the peace online. I see these situations where companies have engaged in wars against each other. In my opinion, they could spend the money and time building rather than repairing. That is why I have always said the first people companies should pay are SEOs and Network Security Consultants. It is always big problems when you piss one of them off. This is a great article, however, I have not seen one as bad as you were approached with Brett. But I am sure there are plenty of them out there.

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    [...] Dealing With “Impossible” Online Reputation Challenges [...]

  • http://www.donereputationmanagement.com Reputation Management

    Wow, a $5,000,000 campaign? I’ve got a great referral commission if you want us to take a crack at it? We’ve had some pretty crazy successes given enough time and resources.

  • Bob Rosner

    Re: extortion etc…totally agree on that. I insulated my client by going through a third party service. Unfortunately the owner has yet to nibble on the offer. It may be time for plan C.

  • http://www.hypotheek-weetjes.nl/hypotheekrente.php Hypotheekrente

    Nice article about reputation management. I agree that is it very hard to erase bad information about a company on the internet, you can always ask webmasters on a personal matter to erase to post.

    Regards,

    Bob

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  • http://www.collabtopia.com/de-reputacion-online-crisis-marca-empresa/ Reputacion Online: Crisis de reputación online imposibles de solucionar | Collabtopia

    [...] original en inglés: Dealing with “Impossible” Online Reputation Challenges, escrito por Brett [...]

  • http://www.collabtopia.com Pedro Maiquez

    Hi Brett, excellent post!.

    These reputation crisis are really hard to repair but, are they so difficult to prevent?. I mean, the question could be why we don’t focus our efforts in avoid the crisis instead of hide bad results. Is prevention possible if big companies measure risks before, and they monitor social and mass media then?.

    We could make this if we build webs and links related to the target before (adding also terms as ‘bad’, ‘problems’, “fail”, etc.) and then we try to talk fast with people is complaining. If mass media wants to destroy the brand there is nothing to do, but maybe we can reduce costs in other cases, and get more work in not so impossible ones.

    I believe repairing can be the last option to online reputation managers, and SEO tactics are not our main tool. How to sell ORM services before crisis?

  • http://seorefugee.com Yura

    Throughout the post, I’ve been waiting to read the lines about “those $5mil wouldn’t change a company for the better”, but didn’t find them even in the list of recommendations. Quite a disappointment.

    The best and only way to fix things is to open the ears, fix the reason the company was negatively pressed and make it publicly known, because positive press travels slowly.

    It isn’t about Google, more about the company, really.

  • Brett Borders

    Yura,

    There’s no way I could post the name of this individual, or even hint at it, as all client inquiries and projects are 100% confidential. There’s a lot of stuff that I come across that would be very interesting to blog about, but I can’t.

    I agree that reason can be a good way of going about things in some cases, but oftentimes, reason = FAIL.

  • http://www.chris-estes.com Chris Estes

    Way to stick to your principals and not reveal clients. But sometimes after all the NDA’s and principal you have to write a resume.

    Rep Managment is important especially for public figures.

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  • http://sayreonline.com Brennan

    I completely agree with almost everything in the article. I hate to see firms take on projects that are basically not winnable. I do more of a full service for clients with the monitoring but we have done a few strictly SEO campaigns where it was easy to get there rankings clean. I have seen SEO reputation companies who are slightly shady sell their clients on the fact that they can remove all first page PR6-7 authority articles which is untrue. Google tries to provide opposition in their search results so you are better off managing and identifying problems by monitoring before they start than trying to correct them after.

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  • http://himerus.com/ Jake Strawn

    Very good information… with a twist of humor…

    In the case that they do pay you 5 million, I'll be your lead ninja!!! I'll burn down that google data center for a cool million! :D

  • http://www.charityleadership.org/ Curtis Pope

    Its amazing that google allows anyone to just put false statements on a site and the crawler comes around and posts it. I have been personally attacked with absolutely no proof and have tried to get it erased.

    I wrote to the google that the statement has no legs but I have not seen anything done yet. It needs to be known that the false info, is just that… false.

  • http://www.charityleadership.org/ Curtis Pope

    Its amazing that google allows anyone to just put false statements on a site and the crawler comes around and posts it. I have been personally attacked with absolutely no proof and have tried to get it erased.

    I wrote to the google that the statement has no legs but I have not seen anything done yet. It needs to be known that the false info, is just that… false.

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  • freelancemom

    Some really valuable information here Brett — its amazing to me how companies can spend years building their brand and then see it completely tarnished by one negative review site.

    I've found success with having the company's PR firm create a well optimized site or two with constantly fresh content highlighting the positives about the company — for example their philanthropic endeavors, positive press and customer reviews. Another idea is for the PR firm to create a site allowing the local public to contact them for donation requests for fundraisers. Lots of creative ways to make legitimate, postive and truthful sites to restore brand integrity and rank well in SERP's.

  • Brett Borders

    Lori,

    Thanks so much for these ideas. As long as the achievements are real and don’t feel forced or manufactured, I think that is smart.

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