Netfix: cleaning up your reputation online
From students seeking to erase photos that could damage their job prospects to those who simply want more privacy, managing reputations online is a thriving business
Names are typed into Google over a billion times every day. Whether it’s a prospective employee, a new babysitter or a first date, that little search bar has become an automatic point of reference. But just as a bad customer review can harm businesses, search results can easily damage the standing of individuals – even when you simply share the same name as someone else.
It’s not just the results that matter. A first impression can form before the search button has even been clicked, as Google’s auto-complete feature makes additional suggestions while you type. If the words popping up after your name are in any way disparaging (Jane Smith scam artist, for example), you may have a problem.
It could be something you shared in the past and now wish to take back: a comment on an article, a debate on a message board, a post on social media that brought unwanted attention. Or it could be something beyond your control: an embarrassing video, an outdated news report, a defamatory blog post.
False information in particular can spread at an alarming speed and it may require a prolonged battle to undo the damage. In 2011, DCU student Eoin McKeogh was wrongly identified in a YouTube video of a man leaving a taxi without paying, sparking an online campaign of misdirected abuse.
Despite having incontrovertible proof that he was in Japan at the time, McKeogh struggled to get the associated content taken down. Fearing it could affect his career prospects, he took the matter to court and succeeded in having all defamatory material relating to the video permanently removed from the web. But media reports on the case only generated more publicity, indelibly linking him with the fight to clear his name.
The prospect of being permanently branded on the internet, even when you’ve done nothing wrong, is one reason why interest in online reputation management is booming. Web specialists offering to help clean up search results began appearing in 2006, initially serving corporate clients who were negatively affected by consumer review sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp. But interest from everyday people soon followed. From university students desperate to expunge inappropriate photos to doctors blighted by anonymous comments, increasing numbers of people have been attempting to regain control over their name.
Michael Fertik founded reputation.com after realising that there was no recourse for people harmed unfairly by content about them online. The internet’s architecture, he believes, favours the attacker: preserving complaints and allegations that have long since been addressed or rendered obsolete.
“Much of the problem stems from people’s unchecked ability to publish whatever they like to the internet – no matter how untrue, malicious or damaging it might be,” says Fertik. “We see posts from disgruntled employees, people who create websites devoted to slagging their former spouse, review sites with comments clearly left by competitors purporting to be angry customers, etc.”
Though the issues vary, an online makeover is no longer something that’s sought out reactively. Reputation.com now has one million users across 100 countries including, Fertik says, a growing volume of customers in Ireland.
“In earlier years, there was typically a [specific] problem that people wanted to solve – for example, a nasty blog written by someone’s ex that was dominating page one of their search results. That’s still true, but now the internet’s power and reach into our personal and professional lives is much, much clearer to us all – so people want to ensure that the most accurate and current information about themselves appears first. They now view their search results as a digital portfolio.”
Ideally, when someone enters your name into Google they will see a relevant set of results that relate specifically to you. The top result draws about a third of all web traffic and the number of clicks only decreases from there. Roughly 91 per cent follow a link from the first page whereas only about five per cent continue to page two. Therefore “owning page one”, as it’s referred to, becomes the primary goal.
Reputation managers employ various strategies to push negative items further and further down the list of search results until they’re out of sight. The most straightforward technique is to fill out the first page with an official website or blog as well as profiles on high-ranking platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Depending on the extent of the problem, progress can vary between weeks and years. Particularly high-profile cases tend to require continuous monitoring, costing as much as €10,000 per year.
There is, however, a question of ethics. Some people attempt to have their search results “scrubbed” even when the negative content is accurate and a matter of public interest.
“You can imagine the kind of people who call us,” says Simon Wadsworth of Igniyte, a UK-based reputation management agency. About half the company’s clients are individuals, he says, and a significant percentage are based in Ireland.
“I’ve had a couple of high-profile people who’ve been in the press call me this week and in both cases I said, ‘There’s nothing I can do. I can’t get it pulled, moved or shifted. It’s just too powerful’.”
The internet does not forget, but search engines recall some things better than others, so the type of content you’ve been affected by may determine how long it takes to move on. Google’s algorithm favours authoritative sites such as media outlets, meaning press reports are likely to feature prominently on an ongoing basis.
“It takes a long, long time for anything like that to drift away,” says Wadsworth. A personal attack on sector-specific sites like Solicitors from Hell can also rank highly, particularly when the person being criticised has little or no online presence. The impact of an individual blog post may diminish somewhat quicker, though Wadsworth explains that some blogs are frequently created for the sole purpose of slating one specific person. Typically the blogger responsible tends to be an ex-partner, ex-employee or former client.
Challenging such websites can be difficult. Getting content pulled is relatively straightforward when the material is deemed racist, defamatory or in violation of the host site’s terms and conditions. But in cases where a parent is concerned that something may be harmful to their child’s reputation, having it removed may come down to a matter of good practice on a website’s part. Some reputation fixers may attempt to contact the person responsible in a bid to reason with them, though this has been known to make the situation worse.
In theory, the recent “right to be forgotten” ruling by the European Court of Justice provides what Wadsworth describes as “another piece of armoury in the toolkit”. It stemmed from a legal case brought by Mario Costeja González, a Spanish man who found that a Google search of his name led to a 1998 newspaper notice concerning the auction of his house to pay off debts.
After a five-year legal battle, this led to a landmark decision that now enables people to ask websites to omit content containing their name from search results if the information is irrelevant, out of date, inaccurate or an invasion of privacy. Within 24 hours of launching its online request form, Google reportedly received more than 12,000 take-down applications from across Europe.
Online reputation management companies such as Igniyte have experienced a surge of interest since the ruling, but Wadsworth says that many people have misunderstood its parameters. “It’s been pretty chaotic,” he says. “A lot of people mistakenly assume it applies to them and just latch on to this idea of, ‘I want to be deleted from Google. Can you do it for me?’ I’d say we’re only helping one out of every 10 or 15 people who contact us and we’re having to tell the rest, ‘Look, don’t waste your time and money because it’s just not going to happen’.”
The first misconception is that the content itself is deleted. In reality, the original source material is untouched. It’s simply omitted from search results for the complainant’s name.
If someone wished to prevent an Irish Times article from appearing in their Google results, for example, it would still be found by searching the Irish Times website. It may also be found by Googling other relevant terms that do not include the person’s name.
Secondly, matters of public interest are an exception to the ruling – something Google must determine on a case-by-case basis. Whenever a request is approved, Google notifies the website in question that one of its pages may no longer appear in certain search results. And therein lies the potential for this ruling to backfire. Media outlets have been responding to these notifications by highlighting articles no longer being linked to by Google, bringing greater scrutiny to stories that applicants hoped to have permanently suppressed.
“It’s important that the ‘right to be forgotten’ is only the right to be de-linked [where appropriate] and no more than that,” says Billy Hawkes, the Data Protection Commissioner. “The Google ruling is extremely clear in that distinction: you don’t have a right to demand erasure. And that’s been misunderstood by many people.”
Anyone in Ireland seeking to appeal applications rejected by Google under the “right to be forgotten” ruling will turn to Hawkes’s office, an open-plan space above a convenience store in Portarlington, Co Laois. This is where the data and privacy of nearly a billion internet users around the world are safeguarded.
Since being appointed as Data Protection Commissioner in 2005, Hawkes believes that general awareness levels about online privacy have improved significantly in Ireland, though he feels that some people can still act imprudently when it comes to seeing the bigger picture of sharing data.
“Obviously the internet is a wonderful resource in terms of accessing information and interacting with people, but you have to understand that it is a very public service which was designed to be a somewhat loose network with limited oversight,” he says. “It’s quite different from writing a letter or talking to your friend in the pub. In terms of education, that’s the key point: once you put something on the internet, it is extremely difficult to undo.”