Cleaning negative Google search content: Can you? Should you?

This article’s focus is about cleaning up and managing negative editorial when it appears in Google search results. If your interest is specifically about dealing with negative online customer reviews then my earlier piece should be helpful.

Not so long ago, concern about a negative story could easily be dismissed with the response that today’s news is tomorrow’s Fish & Chip wrapper. People tended to over-estimate the impact, forgetting that most people were unlikely to read it. Even if they did, the majority didn’t care half as much as was feared.

All this has changed now in several important ways. Negative stories on the internet have a long life, travel further and can escalate quickly from small beginnings. They can also come from many more sources such as bloggers, influencers and whistle-blowing employees or suppliers.  

Rise of the Google washers

This change has led to the emergence of companies who claim they can clean up bad stories, effectively wiping them from the internet. One such firm recently contacted me to sell its services. The self-described ‘digital reputation management firm’ is well-established in the US and is a recent arrival in London. The pitch went like this:

“We offer a guaranteed solution when your clients approach you about negative press that ranks in their Google search results… we partner PR firms like Weber Shandwick and Finsbury, among others. Our clients include Fortune 500 companies, celebrities and private, high-net-worth individuals.”

How they say it works

Intrigued and hoping to learn something new, I accepted the offer to talk. My first question was about how they operate. I was told they create and post positive stories on a wide range of medium-authority* websites, some of which they wholly-own and others that are commercial partners.

The most popular key words and search terms people use for the client are identified beforehand and woven into these stories. The aim is to get Google to rank this new, flattering editorial above the negative, problematic stories.

Because few people venture beyond page one or two of search results, that would be considered job done – if successful, more on which later. This description sounded familiar. I first came across the dubious practice known as drowning-out or Google-washing several years ago. In fact, it was one of the claims the controversial and now defunct PR firm Bell Pottinger often made in its notorious sales pitches.

Who uses these services?

My next question was about who they work with. The salesperson named three well-known companies as examples. One is a global FMCG business with ongoing reputation problems over many years. Another is a so-called ‘Unicorn’ technology firm associated with a controversial privacy violation. The third is a high-end consumer brand in the home decoration sector. They also told me they work with large PR firms who ‘white label’ the service as their own.

These clients pay between £3-10,000 per month, with contracts lasting between 6-12 months. Even at the extreme end, paying £120,000 to remove un unflattering article from Google search might be considered a bargain for an oligarch with an ego.

Is it ethical?

I then asked about the ethics of this kind of service, and if they ever turned down clients. They said the company does refuse business, and if in doubt the company’s ethics committee makes the final decision.

What ethical guidelines does it work to, and are they aligned with those of the PR trade bodies such as the PRSA, PRCA or CIPR? Apparently not. No-one had ever asked my caller that question before. What’s more, she admitted her company works for people convicted of criminal offences.

What about that guarantee then? I was assured that if the company doesn’t achieve results in the set time-frame, they continue working for free until they do. I was told that out of 2,700 projects, only three had ever called on that guarantee.

Does it actually work?

To say I was doubtful that any company can do what this company claims is an understatement. It undermines one of the key reasons for Google’s global dominance in search. And if they could, wouldn’t my caller’s company have grown a lot faster? Wouldn’t Google have bought it and closed it down?

I decided to put a call in to Andy Smith to hear his expert opinion. Andy chuckled when I told him about the company in question. He confirmed that I had every reason to be doubtful, reminding me of his New Statesman article on the subject from 2011. A few days later, Andy pointed me to this alarming Buzzfeed article which shows how convicted criminals attempt to airbrush Google results.

For extra measure, I had a look at the search results for the three clients my caller had named. Two of them still had negative results on page one. The third still had several negative stories on page two. That’s pretty clear evidence alone.

Then I searched for the name of the service provider itself. Google page one features the company’s Wikipedia entry. This says its co-founders ran a public relations company banned from editing Wikipedia pages.

This, as some will know, is a direct contravention of the site’s rules. Anyone with a conflict of interest cannot edit content. There’s a handy CIPR guide on this for those who want to know more. The firm was also exposed by a freelance journalist after offering him payment to write an article about a client. In summary, this is all solid evidence to support my initial doubts.

What does work?

The only viable option for removing negative content that’s proven to work (and has Google’s endorsement) is to ask the website that first published the content to remove it. However, take note: damage to your business or reputation is unlikely to be considered a sufficiently-good reason to justify removal, assuming the story is true.

If the site owner agrees to remove it, once it is, all search engines, including Google, will no longer include the negative content in search results.

Negative stories often naturally fall further down the search results over time, as more up-to-date content appears. Search for BP or VW and you won’t see anything about Deepwater Horizon or ‘Deiselgate’ on pages one or two.

A more recent example is what happens if you were to research Boris Johnson’s record of improving public transport as London’s mayor. Until recently, you would have found a string of negative stories on page one associating Boris with buses. Now they’re buried after blanket media coverage of his bizarre hobby claim. Such sites are, of course, ‘high-authority’. Whether this is a happy accident, or part of a masterly plan is unclear.

You can, if you wish, speed up this natural attrition process. The way to do it is by finding and telling more positive stories from within your organisation. Some of these will be worthy of media attention. Any good public relations team will know how to make the most of them.

What the CIPR and PRCA have to say on this

I asked the PRCA and the CIPR what guidance they provided for members who might be considering Google-washing. Here’s what they said:

“The PRCA exists to uphold standards in the public relations and communications industry: by becoming a member of the world’s largest PR professional body, you agree to adhere to our Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct. Upholding these rules and standards is a condition of continual membership and complaints process details are, as ever, in the public domain. These principles apply regardless of the specific campaign tactics: anyone with any concerns about a member incorporating practices such as negative SEO or ‘black hat’ tactics into a campaign should contact us.”

“It is entirely unethical for professionals to attempt to prevent content appearing in Google search results. The CIPR Code of Conduct compels members to maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour. The Code – to which all CIPR members are individually accountable – requires practitioners to deal honestly and fairly in business with the public at all times. Deliberately hiding text or links in content to manipulate Google’s search is a breach of the Code and violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”

These positions are pretty unequivocal. But public relations and digital marketing are unregulated sectors, and these codes only apply to those who are members of the trade bodies (thousands aren’t). Even if someone is and breaks the code, there are no sanctions to act as a true deterrent, unlike those used in regulated professions.

Final thoughts

I can imagine that Google isn’t too happy about attempts to interfere with its search results. People expect to see accurate, useful and balanced results. That includes inconvenient truths as well as the overly-polished image that many people and companies covet.

I’m also struck by the similarities of what this company offers with the work that most PR professionals would consider their own territory – media management.

Identifying and placing positive stories on behalf of clients, mitigating unwelcome news and advising those with image problems on how to improve are all routine tasks for PR people, whether they work in-house or agency-side.

The difference seems to be how far they are willing to go to. If, indeed, Weber Shandwick, Finsbury, and other large PR agencies do white label this firm’s service, then you can make your own mind up about whether these agencies have crossed an ethical line.

* Only Google knows how its algorithm works, but it does release small insights from time-to-time. For example, it’s known all sites are ranked for popularity, authority, currency and trustworthiness on any given subject. This means a positive story about you or your business on a high-authority, high-trust site that links back to your own site will be good for SEO, giving you a hefty bump up the rankings.

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