In a recent article for the Wall St. Journal, Julia Angwin shares the tale of her foray into online reputation management (ORM) as seen through the lens of Google results:
One of the paradoxes of the digital age is that the boundless freedoms of the Internet also constrain our identity. Before the ubiquity of search engines you could go on a date or a job interview and construct a narrative about your life that fit the situation. No one in your book group had to know that you were a punk-rocker in high school. But it’s much harder to package yourself in the Google era. Online, your digital identity often comes down to the top 10 links on your SERPs, or search-engine results pages.
At issue for Angwin: an article she wrote in 2005 (containing a correction, no less) that sits atop page 1 of the Google results associated with a search on her name. With a book coming out soon, her imperative becomes to find ways she might remove this older content, or at least move it further down from its position on page 1 of Google’s search results based on her name. This takes her on an odyssey into the world of search engine optimization (SEO), where she quickly learns the hard lesson that Google will not intervene to remove the older article, and that the only solution is to create newer content that will be seen as more relevant:
For details, I turned to WSJ.com’s search-engine-optimization consultant Alex Bennert, who advised me to bury the annoying article underneath more favorable material, such as my social-networking profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace, as well as blogging site Twitter.
Next, I contacted Rhea Drysdale, a search-engine-optimization expert at OutspokenMedia.com. Ms. Drysdale explained that I needed to focus on linking my online presences to each other — that is, my Twitter page would link to my LinkedIn page, which would link to my biography on my book-publisher’s site. These interlinkages are key to understanding Google’s page-ranking system. Google rates Web sites, in part, by how many links they have from other credible Web sites.
Ms. Drysdale explained that this interlinkage system was the reason that my Novak article had been appearing so high in my SERP. Using Yahoo’s Site Explorer, a tool that identifies sites that are linking to a Web address, she found that the Novak article had 25 links from sites that included the Washington Post, Instapundit and 13 different places in the archives of a conservative blog.
By interlinking my sites, my efforts soon began to pay off. Two weeks into the project, the Novak article disappeared from the first page of my results. My LinkedIn profile jumped to the No. 1 spot.
Angwin’s story is an increasingly common one for people in the public eye: according to a recent study conducted by my company, Weber Shandwick in cooperation with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) entitled, Risky Business: Managing Reputations Online, nearly two-thirds of executives reported going online to uncover activities of business rivals and partners, yet fewer than 4 in 10 (38%) reported doing an online search on their own names within 30 days of participating in the survey.
As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross observed recently on her reputationXchange.com blog, “The good news is that executives are no longer asking their assistants to print out their emails to read but they still have far to go in terms of understanding the new media and making it work for their companies in identifying opportunity and yes, early warning signs.” Not surprisingly, executives are caught off guard when a less-than-flattering news item or blog post becomes the story on page one of Google’s search results, and they then find themselves in the same position as Angwin, seeking out advice on how to regain control over their online reputation. As Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps has seen following his own reputation crisis, Google never forgets.
But the good news is that over time, Google’s memory can soften in its focus, and it is still possible to help shape what Google shows the world about you: through posting a critical mass of timely and relevant content, older (and more negative) items can be pushed further and further back in search results, until they border on obscure. A 2004 eye-tracking study by Cornell University revealed, startlingly, that the first five positions on Google get 88% of the traffic and the top three search results receive 79% of all clicks. This would suggest that pushing negative results beyond page 1 of Google SERPs would be a successful outcome for an online reputation rescue effort.
The strategy Angwin is counseled to pursue is ultimately the only effective one: if an old (and presumably unflattering) story is hanging around on page one of your search results like an uninvited guest, it’s time to tell some newer stories that put your reputation in the desired light, and then to strengthen them through building links among them.
Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind the following:
- Online reputation matters: Googling your own name from time to time is not just an ego-trip, it’s a necessary reality check on how your reputation is being projected online.
- Negative results can define: All your achievements can be overshadowed by a lapse in judgment or a snarky review or blog post.
- Repairing your reputation online can be done, but it takes focus: As Julia Angwin learned, undesirable items and links can’t be wished away or erased, but can be countered with newer, more relevant items that occupy the critical top spots on the first page of related searches. Effective use of social media can play a significant role in making this happen.
The approach for online reputation rescue is, interestingly enough, the same content market strategy that works successfully for individual companies and brands who want the be highly visible: flood the zone with online content that is relevant to your readers, optimized for search, and tells your story in a positive light. With online reputation management, there is the added urgency to counteract or supplant existing items, but it’s essentially the same principle.