The Internet Doesn’t Forget
Any company or individual who’s experienced a public scandal of any type or severity understands the pervasiveness of negative online content. Whether it’s news articles, antagonistic social media posts, or malicious reviews, once something is published online, it won’t disappear on its own even as time passes.
In the era of “cancel culture,” a single misstep can tarnish a person or business’s reputation overnight and leave seemingly permanent damage. The internet doesn’t forgive, and it doesn’t forget, making it difficult to reclaim the narrative and rebuild your reputation after a public mistake or misunderstanding.
Furthermore, the current policies established by major search engines and social media companies do very little to protect user privacy. You may think you have the right to be left alone or forgotten, but this standard that many users want to be upheld is not a top priority for these corporations and certainly not for clickbait creators and online tabloids. And no person or company—no matter how low-profile or famous—is immune to online scrutiny.
How Negative Search Results Affect Your Life and Business
pandemic), search engine and social media giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have come under fire for their inability or unwillingness to combat misinformation and potentially harmful rhetoric.
Everyone from casual Facebook users to corporate executives has asked the question—what responsibility do these media magnates have to uphold the truth and dispel falsities? To answer this question, investigating their legal obligations is a good place to start.
Understanding Freedom of Speech
Too often, people misuse the term “freedom of speech.” This misapplication often clouds people’s opinions of the role search engine and media companies should or shouldn’t play in censoring online content.
While the government cannot limit free speech, this constitutional protection has no bearing on private entities. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other similar corporations have no legal obligation to protect free speech. Nonetheless, the executives of many of these companies have built the concept of free speech into the framework of their platforms.
Second, it’s important to note that freedom of speech does have limitations. For example, imminent lawless action (inciting violence) is not protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, people can file civil suits for defamation or invasion of privacy. On private social media platforms, user policies and agreements often ban hate speech and explicit content.
Understanding these laws and limitations sets the backdrop for the debate over Google and other media companies’ mitigation between defending the freedom of expression and respecting freedom of privacy. Contrary to what many people believe, private companies—not the U.S. government—set many of these standards. Moreover, users technically acknowledge these policies by accepting each platform’s terms and agreements.
Google’s Main Objectives
Exploring this debate and strategizing tactics for reputation management also requires a closer look at Google’s priorities. In its mission statement, Google clearly spells out the company’s objectives of Google Search, including:
- Deliver the most relevant and reliable information available
- Maximize access to information
- Present information in the most useful way
- Protect your privacy
- Sell ads, nothing more
- Help creators succeed online
However, reading between the lines of Google’s mission reveals the conflict between these interests. Through algorithms and manual ratings from human search quality evaluators, Google Search attempts to organize information by favoring its definition of “credible” sources. It also tries to protect user privacy while maintaining a policy of free information. Google’s mission statement page claims: “To keep information openly accessible, we only remove content from our search results in limited circumstances, such as compliance with local laws or site owner requests.”
Put simply, Google attempts to be the arbiter of truth and authority on any given subject, and it innately values the freedom of information over the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten. Therein lies the problem for any company, organization, or individual attempting to rebuild a stained reputation. How can you take control of your image and credibility if Google Search determines who is or isn’t credible and won’t remove information (even if untrue) just because it hurts your reputation?
How E-A-T Allows for Reputation Ruin
This issue begs the question: how does Google assess authority and credibility? Fortunately, Google spells out its process in its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. As previously mentioned, real people complete these assessments, which in and of itself leaves room for subjectivity.
Since the Medic update, Google has put great emphasis on expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) to evaluate content producers and the merit of individual page content, especially for YMYL content that may influence “your money or your life.”
While the preference for E-A-T-level content creators sounds progressive, the details in the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines reveal the holes in this endeavor. The guidelines include the following instructions for evaluators:
- Keep in mind that there are high E-A-T pages and websites of all types, even gossip websites, fashion websites, humor websites, forum and Q&A pages, etc. In fact, some types of information are found almost exclusively on forums and discussions, where a community of experts can provide valuable perspectives on specific topics.” (3.2)
- “Some topics require less formal expertise. Many people write extremely detailed, helpful reviews of products or restaurants. Many people share tips and life experiences on forums, blogs, etc. These ordinary people may be considered experts in topics where they have life experience. If it seems as if the person creating the content has the type and amount of life experience to make him or her an ‘expert’ on the topic, we will value this ‘everyday expertise’ and not penalize the person/webpage/website for not having ‘formal’ education or training in the field.” (3.2)
These directives make it clear that even Google’s E-A-T assessment of content and content creators is subjective and tied to the opinions of search evaluators. What does E-A-T have to do with a business or individual’s online reputation?
It shows that online reviews and comments from everyday users can come out on top of Google Search results. And who’s to say these comments are truthful, useful, or even authentically generated by real people? Essentially, any person or organization with the appearance of E-A-T has the power to make or break someone else’s reputation.
Do You Have a Right to Privacy?
The second challenge for personal or business reputation management is Google’s standards for user privacy and how privacy conflicts with the freedom of speech and information in the digital age.
Within the European Union, the so-called “right to be forgotten” or “right to erasure” laws enable internet users to request that major search engines remove information from their indexes. Google fought hard to limit the extent of this legislation, and it’s important to note that it only applies to countries in the EU.
In the U.S., no such protection exists. According to Google policy, the best way to have information removed is to request that website owners take it down. Google only intercedes if the information “creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harms.” This includes instances of non-consensual explicit images, involuntary fake pornography, and some financial, medical, and national ID information.
Unless the content is illegal or opens the door to very specific threats, Google has no obligation to remove it from their indexes. If a person or company wants content removed, they’re at the mercy of the publisher unless they can prove illegal action. While larger corporations may have the resources to file libel lawsuits in instances of defamation, the average person may not have the means to involve an attorney.
Don’t Let it Ruin Your Online Reputation
Regardless of your opinion of Google’s mission, algorithms, and quality rater guidelines, you may have to play by Google’s rules to rebuild your reputation after negative viral attention. To push negative content about you or your brand further down on Google search engine results pages (SERPs), you have some options to fight back:
Content removal is no easy task—it takes time and requires a lot of manual labor. However, it is possible to get unbefitting content removed. If you don’t have the time or know-how to request removals, an online reputation management agency can assist your efforts.
Platforms, Publications, and Site Owners
On many social media platforms, you can also try the built-in channels for reporting content. These sites typically have complaint forms you can fill out or a flagging function to request content removal. You can click the links below to learn how to use these functions on popular sites:
- Facebook Policies and Reporting
- Twitter Rules and Policies, Twitter Safety and Security
- Instagram Privacy and Safety Center—Report Something
- YouTube reporting
Google Index Removal and Legal Action
As previously mentioned, Google typically only takes action and removes content that presents serious risks to specific harms. However, it’s not impossible to convince Google to remove sensitive information.
Furthermore, you may have a case for legal action. In addition to making civil claims or pressing criminal charges against the content publisher, you can ask Google to remove content from their indexes. Legal causes for removal include intellectual property issues, invasion of privacy, defamation, and non-consensual explicit imagery.
Active Reputation Management
Reputation management doesn’t solely rely on removing damaging content—it’s also about rewriting your public narrative. Positive reputation management means taking control of your online reputation by creating content that disproves or overshadows the existing negative content.
At the company level, the best way to rebuild your reputation is by producing content that proves damaging claims are false or simply outranks the negative content. A few tactics for quickly publishing content that ranks include:
- Launching microsite(s) targeting the brand name keyword
- Launching pay-per-click ads to get positive content shared
- Guest posting on high-authority sites
- Ramping up social media presence and launching new campaigns around a cohesive, positive message
- Interacting online with disgruntled customers
For executives, you can execute similar programs as listed above, but with some tweaks:
- Hire a reputation management agency to help
- Subscribe to a reputation monitoring tool
- Create pages on your company website about you, or even better, an entire hub of content as it will rank quickly
- Find all social profiles online in your name and claim them using a tool like KnowEm
- Contribute to or popular publications and get a byline
- Accept interviews with high-profile publications or podcasts
- Build your own private website about yourself and build links to it
- Consider getting a lawyer involved if you think you have a case for libel or invasion of privacy
For the average person, trying to improve your reputation can follow the same strategy just on a smaller scale. This may mean posting more to social media, building out professional profiles on sites like LinkedIn, or even starting a branded blog that uses your full name as the domain. You can also take part in local events or get involved with charity organizations to earn some positive local press.
A Call for Action
While individuals and business owners or their PR staff can put in the hard work to reclaim their reputation, they shouldn’t have to. It is high time for Google, Facebook, Bing and other social networks to take a proactive stand—whether that means algorithm or policy changes—to protect users. From the average social media user to local business owners to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, everyone should have the right to a mechanism that holds online publishers accountable for the content they produce and how it affects people’s lives.