Censoring Google Isn’t the Only (or Best) Way to Clean Up Your Reputation

How to manage what pops up when people search your name.

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May 27 2014, 8:31pm
Image: Shutterstock

A former colleague of mine has, over the years, made a name for himself as a journalist—unfortunately, he shares a name with a white supremacist that’s rather outspoken online. There are surely a few links my colleague would prefer didn’t show up when people google his name.

I’d imagine there's no shortage of people who would similarly like to avail themselves of the "right to be forgotten," recently established by the European Union Court of Justice, which requires Google to remove search results when a person complains that certain links contain information that might infringe on his or her privacy.

While many people see the ruling as a boon, it puts Google in the unenviable position of having to examine what will certainly snowball into thousands of requests from embarrassed people trying to remove unflattering information from the web. Of the three quarters of US adults with internet access who have Googled themselves, almost half are unhappy with the results. The numbers in Europe, where the court decision applies, are likely similar.

Among those who’ve already requested takedowns in Europe: a man found guilty of possessing child pornography, an ex-politician who wants links to an article about his tenure removed, and a doctor who wants negative reviews scrubbed from search results.

But there are ways to control what pops up when people search your name without censoring information on the web. Reputation management is a multimillion-dollar industry, and it mainly revolves around influencing search results.

As you’d expect, it’s big business. Increasingly, Google search results determine how people sum you up. A 2012 study by online reputation management company BrandYourself found that 89 percent of Americans have used a search engine like Google to find more information about another person. People look up potential hires, business partners, and dates online before getting involved.  

The politician is right to be worried. Nearly a third of people who have searched another person online have looked up a political figure, the study found. For more than half those people, the search influenced the voting decision.

I dabbled in online reputation management while working in online marketing, and in light of the “right to be forgotten” ruling, talked to Ian Lurie, Chairman and Principal Consultant of Portent Interactive to get a few tips for cleaning up your personal search results.

He gave me an example: An anti-Semitic site called Jew Watch used to rank number one if you searched “Jew.”

“I wanted to push it down as many spots in the rankings as humanly possible,” Lurie said.

It turns out a lot of sites were linking to the anti-Semitic site without realizing what it was, unwittingly boosting its PageRank. Lurie and his team contacted 200 of those sites and asked them to link elsewhere. Jew Watch now comes up fourth, rather than first, when you search for the word.

Lurie said the most important tip he gives his clients is to do it ahead of time. “It’s a lot easier to do reputation management before you need reputation management,” he said. “It’s really hard to dislodge rankings.”

So, what should you do? The first step is signing up for social media profiles under your name. Sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, About.me, YouTube, Pinterest, and Facebook all have high ranking potential. Be sure to fill out your profiles completely, upload photos, and use your name exactly as you expect people to search for it.

Double-down on that search term; don’t use “Cathy” one place and “Catherine” another. Another easy thing to do is to buy your domain name if it’s available.

Getting published is also a great way to create new results for your name. Submit blog posts and op-eds to sites with reasonably good search rankings, the more popular the better. Getting interviewed for an article also works, but that’s often harder.

“Promote your publications and interviews in social media and on your website,” Lurie advised. “Create subdomains on your site. You can get those subdomains listed also.”

This DIY approach to curating your online persona takes some patience, however. “It takes a lot longer than you think it does to actually push a site down in the rankings,” said Lurie. Getting Google to simply make the problematic information disappear is of course much easier, but it also raises a host of free speech concerns and legal complications.

In the EU, Google now must decide between granting every takedown request, potentially decreasing the quality and accuracy of search results, or pouring time, money, and energy into making calls on a case-by-case basis and risk having answer to the authorities if a certain request is denied.

Neither approach is good for web users. Removing links because they’re embarrassing decreases the accuracy and usefulness of search results. Diverting resources from research and development toward examining requests won’t improve the quality of Google’s products.

In an interview with CNN, First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza described the ruling as a European's right to say, "This is really old information, and it no longer reflects who I am." But you can argue that people already have that right, by working to create new results. Anyone can submit to Google new, better, more accurate links that should, theoretically, show up higher in a search for his or her name. That’s the primary mechanism that reputation management companies use to help their customers.

Now that googling people and ourselves is so thoroughly embedded in society, the ability to obtain thorough, accurate information online is incredibly important. Private, voluntary solutions to unflattering online information exist, and are quite sufficient, even if they’re not as easy and cheap as a legal mandate.