Thursday, October 27, 2011

How to be UnGoogleable

One from my personal archives...

By Bernhard Warner (May 28, 2008)

Recently, I received an odd plea for help. A former colleague emailed me to request that all references to her be expunged from the online news blog I coordinate for a university here in Rome. It was a legitimate request, I concluded. I went into the old posts and deleted the one in which her name appeared. (I should note here that the post was about an upcoming event on campus from over a year ago and had absolutely zero news value to readers today. So, I pulled it.)

She was grateful for my quick response. A few minutes later though she was back in my in-box. This time, the tone was less gracious. She Googled her name and still the reference appeared. Clicking on the link brought you to a dead URL, but still there was enough of an article snippet visible on the Google search results page to clearly identify her with the university. She told me she’d prefer to remain at all costs “un-Google-able”.

At first I was startled by the statement. There is a whole industry dedicated to making you or your business appear top of the heap on Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. Search engine optimisation experts, those whose job it is to find every soft spot in search algorithms, abound in every language. Visibility is big business. Why would you want to hide from the search engines?

Of course, there are plenty of reasons. Some ordinary people, politicians, celebrities, companies or brands simply want pieces of their past concealed, or, ideally, wiped off the public record. It’s possible to achieve the former. But eliminating all signs of a person’s existence, once published online – i.e. achieving a state of “un-Google-able” – that’s another story entirely.

“Un-Google-able? I don’t think it’s possible,” says Nilhan Jayasinghe the European Vice President and Head of Natural Search for iCrossing, an online marketing firm that specializes in SEO and online reputation management for major brands like Toyota, Coca-Cola and LEGO. “The problem is you simply have no control over all the outlets that publish something about you”.

If the published item is a one-time reference and it’s pulled offline relatively quickly, then there’s a chance you can escape the search engines’ reach. In the case of the post I mention above, the Google spiders swept the news blog about two weeks later and all traces of the original story (as far as I can tell) were eliminated. She was lucky.

Had the story been picked up by just one blogger who then made mention of her on his blog, or had her name been posted on a social network site or in some community forum or newsgroup somewhere, forget about it. There’s virtually no way to get all the references taken down unless you track down each person responsible for publishing the details and plead your case to them. Or, had she been photographed with a group of ex-colleagues and had she been tagged in the caption there’s a good chance these days that that photo would end up on Flickr or another online photo-sharing site for the wired world to see. To be sure, monitoring your personal reputation in this Web 2.0 age is a real chore.

For big brands it’s becoming a full-time occupation. “For a company with a reputation issue that’s being discussed online, all you can do is strengthen your own position,” Mr. Jayasinghe says. “The idea is to get your positive news out there more prominently online, and increase the prominence of others talking about you so as to bury the bad results”.

For major corporations, there’s a simple formula to keeping reputations intact these days, one that they may be surprising to hear. Like the old song goes -- you’ve got to accentuate the positive. The problem is corporate PRs and political spinmeisters have a long history of attacking the unsavoury version of a story. It’s the eliminate the negative school. But this approach doesn’t work any more. The more you attack the negative, the more visibility you give it, and the more prominence it gets when someone types in a search query.

Mr. Jayasinghe gives an example of how best to approach bad news that just won’t go away online. A pharmaceutical client was taking a beating from activists, bloggers and consumer watchdogs for some business decisions it had made in the past, he recalls, adding “and they thought the treatment was neither fair nor ethically right.”

The prescription? iCrossing advised the client to begin publishing all the positive news it had about the situation, even enlisting the help of charitable organisations it worked with to bring to light a new side of the debate that had not been discussed. In publishing the positive news the company was able to defend its reputation and steal attention away from its critics.

“With many clients, we have been able to help them suppress it (the critical chatter) provided they have enough positive material they can use to build up their reputation,” Mr. Jayasinghe.

That works fine for big brands. But what about private citizens, ones with no PR budget or brand-reputation specialists to call upon? You may succeed in getting your university friends to pull offline those embarrassing late-night-drinks-filled photo shoots before a prospective employer sees it, but otherwise, your reputation is in the hands of many. You have less control than you think. Sounding a bit like an overprotective parent, Mr. Jayasinghe advises, don’t do anything stupid that can later be republished online.

As for being “un-Google-able”, forget about it. The majority of us all will be easily indexed on Google (or worse, a wanton namesake will be) at some point in our lives. But even private citizens can bury the embarrassing bits. If you care to.
I wrote this article back in 2008 when I had a column for The Times (of London). It's now hidden behind the Times paywall. The original article can be found here.

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