Don’t Believe Companies That Guarantee They Can “Delete Negative Search Results.”
You’ve done your homework. You’ve thoroughly researched your online image and taken all of the fundamental steps to maintaining, grooming, and improving your company’s online reputation.
Reluctantly, you’ve even swallowed the bitter pills that are negative reviews (even if you didn’t agree) and personally reached out to dissatisfied customers in order to improve their experience. Still—there they are, unwanted eyesores on the landscape of your business – Negative Search Results.
Companies that promise to specifically “remove” online reviews and search results are fueled by a misunderstanding of the reputation management industry. In most cases, reviews or negative results are not actually removed unless they fall against the specific terms of the site where they are hosted. There is no magic wand to wave or a quick and easy fix when it comes to reputation management and repairing negative search results.
Typically, the core strategy behind most reputation management firms (even the ones that claim to remove and delete negative content) is to suppress negative content to the second page of Google while boosting more positive or neutral search results. In nearly all cases, the negative content being suppressed to page two is a great result, considering that 90% of all search traffic doesn’t venture past the first page.
The claim of “removing” negative content is misleading at best. Take a look, for example, at the first few ad results of a “Remove Negative Reviews” Google search.
Like the old saying goes, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Digging further into these claims, you’ll quickly find the contradictory language. Alongside promises of “Guaranteed Removals,” you will also find absolving statements like “Not everything is possible to remove.” Be sure you read the terms of service twice.
Communications and Decency Act
In nearly all cases, removing negative content is at the discretion of the website where the negative content is hosted. Why? Because of section 230 of the Federal Communications and Decency Act–which to make a long story short–exempts websites from being held responsible for the content posted by users on their site.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230).
There is no motivation by websites to get involved in messy disputes over negative reviews since ultimately they can’t be held responsible for the content posted by users.
With that in mind, it’s understandable why companies like Yelp, whose business exists solely from users online reviews, would be hesitant to take a softer stance towards removing negative reviews upon request.
Digging into the Yelp FAQ confirms that Yelp isn’t interested in taking sides in factual disputes and most likely won’t delete bad reviews based on two opposing claims. Be prepared to have a court order if Yelp disagrees with your definition of “defamatory.”
Every site on the internet plays by the same rules laid out by the CDA 230.
Let’s take a look at where Google stands on the issue of removing negative search results.
As you can see from the Google Search Help link above, Google also takes a firm stance on deleting content which does not fall into very specific categories. In many cases, you will need court documents and the help of a lawyer to prove defamation claims. Unless there is content which includes these specific instances, Google may not remove negative content even with the help of council.
Be extremely cautious when dealing with any online reputation management company that guarantees to delete negative search results. Do not take for granted that what is being advertised is legal, especially if the solution involves modifying court documents in any way.
Take for example the incredibly cautionary story of the National Sapphire Company.
As reported by Search Engine Land, after cutting the financial cord with an offshore company hired to build out the NSC website, the foreign company then launched a series of damaging online attacks. These cyber attacks included phony negative reviews, click-fraud on Google ad-words, hijacking the NSC website, and demanding extortion payments, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars and putting National Sapphire Company in financial ruin.
While the National Sapphire Company eventually succeeded in winning a summary judgment in court, directing Google to remove the negative content of over 50 URLs, the damage had been done. Shortly thereafter, the same negative content began reappearing, with the same language and URLs slightly modified.
Around this time, NSC had been contacted by numerous reputation management companies offering to delete the negative content, including now defunct Brand.com
According to the National Sapphire Company, Brand.com’s legal department claimed since the prior court decision included the language “…remove all such false reviews, including, but not limited to…” that NSC could simply add the new URLs to the original court document. This was a very bad idea.
Michael Arnstein, CEO of the National Sapphire Company, then instructed one of his employees to use Photoshop to alter the court documents to include the new URLs for removal. The altered documents were then submitted to Google. This was done a number of times, whenever new URLs appeared or if the older requests were not taken down.
After Google noticed that the separate court orders looked identical outside of the URLs listed for removal, Google then contacted the U.S. Justice Department.
Last Spring, US Marshals arrested Michael Arnstein of The National Sapphire Company, and he was charged with forging the signature of a federal judge and conspiracy to forge a judge’s signature.
As part of his plea bargain, Arnstein is currently facing up to 18 months in prison in addition to a $55K fine.
Fixing Your Reputation
It is apparent that falsified negative content attacking businesses is a prevalent issue with protective regulation preventing hosting websites from being held accountable. Even if the origin of the falsified content is found, (a difficult task) the costs of hiring a lawyer and the time drain of dealing with the parties involved can be a heavy strain both financially and mentally. Attaining a court order is a difficult process and search engine companies, as well as the hosting sites, have little incentive to get involved. This, in turn, leads companies to look for desperate quick-fixes. It’s easy to see how a “Guaranteed Removal” claim would be appealing to a company where other solutions have proved tedious and expensive.
Unfortunately, repairing a damaged reputation takes time. Rebuilding trust doesn’t happen overnight, even once the negative content is removed. One of the core practices of reputation management is replacing negative content with positive material through a combination of traditional PR and SEO best practices. This is not an overnight process (think months rather than days) and requires a significant amount of attention in order to make an impact.
Status Labs is the premier digital reputation management firm, with offices in Austin, New York, Los Angeles, London, and São Paulo. For more information visit StatusLabs.com or sign up for a Free Consultation.