Reputation is an incredibly powerful thing, and that's nothing new. When Augustus established himself as Rome's first emperor in 27 BC, this was thanks to his successful use of language, literature, events, architecture and sculptures to build his reputation with Ancient Rome's movers and shakers.
Today, reputation is just as important. But when people want to know whether they should trust an individual or an organization, they don't look at buildings and busts; they go online.
If you're going for a job interview, chances are the interviewer has Googled you (and hopefully you've Googled them too!)
If you're wondering whether a hotel is really as good as it looks in the brochure, you check their online reviews.
Online information can even help determine the future of an entire nation – just look at the role of social media in recent elections in the US and UK.
So, it's hardly surprising that individuals and organizations are increasingly aware of their online reputations. If, when people are searching for you, they see a negative result (or lots of negative results), of course you're going to want to do something about that.
Online Reputation Management (ORM) generally involves using SEO techniques to replace negative search results with positive listings. That might involve building links to favorable content that already exists, or creating new content designed to outrank whatever you're trying to disassociate yourself from.
If you'd expect Google not to take too kindly to this, their advice may surprise you. They suggest asking sites to remove content you're not happy with, but add:
"If you can't get the content removed from the original site, you probably won't be able to completely remove it from Google's search results, either. Instead, you can try to reduce its visibility in the search results by proactively publishing useful, positive information about yourself or your business. If you can get stuff that you want people to see to outperform the stuff you don't want them to see, you'll be able to reduce the amount of harm that that negative or embarrassing content can do to your reputation."
But is it ethical to essentially hide this negative or embarrassing content? And is it good for SEO as an industry to prevent the public from accessing information it has a legitimate interest in seeing?
The Independent recently carried out an undercover investigation into PR firm Bell Pottinger's strategies for softening the image of brutal dictatorships and other controversial clients. David Wilson and Tim Collins, both senior executives at the firm, boasted about their access to Downing Street, but they also described to an undercover reporter how they use dark arts to drown negative content online. The paper's report states:
"The firm cited past examples of its work, included manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Bell Pottinger executives said they had ensured that references to a former Dahabshill employee subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay because of alleged links to al-Qai'da disappeared from the first 10 pages of a Google search for the company."
Indeed, as far back as 2007, then chairman Kevin Murray was quoted in PR Week saying:
"Previously SEO has only been used to make sure a brand is noticed and high-up on a relevant search. What we are doing is taking the world's biggest reputation management tool – Google – and turning it into a tool for crisis management."
But exactly what techniques are big PR firms actually using for ORM? One trend that his become increasingly widespread is known as 'astroturfing' – planting positive stories and comments on the web that appear to come from customers or individuals but are instead part of a concerted campaign by a PR firm. Apparently, even the US Air Force want a piece of the action.
Is that really what Google had in mind when they suggested proactively publishing useful, positive information? I think not.
Getting Your Hands Dirty?
The ethical questions go beyond just the techniques that are used under the guise of ORM. And there are no easy answers. Is it right to do ORM for a company that's clearly ripping off its customers and shows no signs of changing its ways?
Would you be willing to take responsibility for the online reputation of a company with listings like this, for example?
You could also ask whether it's right to do ORM for a convicted criminal, or human rights violators like the regimes Bell Pottinger works for. There is no industry code of practice on this, so it's ultimately down to each SEO agency to decide what it is comfortable with.
Using The Force For Good
At the same time, however, there are cases where negative information surfaces but the person or organization it refers to hasn't actually done anything wrong.
Remember Chris Jefferies? He was the landlord of murder victim Joanna Yeates. He was interviewed by the police, and promptly subjected to a ruthless character assassination by the tabloid press both online and offline, before being cleared of any involvement. His reputation was pretty much destroyed, and it's only thanks to the ongoing Leveson Inquiry that the Google results now tell the true story:
Ultimately, even if ORM efforts are successful in manipulating the search results by ensuring positive content outranks negative content, SEO can't control what people are talking about offline, and that will influence their searches. Google's predictive search will probably pick up on this, quite possibly undoing all your good (or perhaps evil) work. Just take a look what happens if you start typing 'John Terry' into Google:
So does that mean you need to control what's in the papers and on TV as well? PR firms certainly spend a lot of money trying to do exactly that. But if they cant even protect their own reputations, as The Independent's Bell Pottinger investigation showed, then would you really trust them to protect yours?
In my opinion, ORM is totally justified when the influence of negative search results is disproportionate. If a company generally offers a good service and a few isolated complaints are harming their reputation, ORM makes sense. But if new complaints are popping up all the time, an ORM campaign will probably be futile.
And what about the reputation of SEO itself? Shady ORM tactics for shady clients don't reflect well on the industry; why manage someone else's reputation at the expense of your own? Anyone who cares about building trust in SEO as a discipline should approach ORM with caution.
What's your take on all this?