The people involved in that behavior are key parts of our economy: Informers, Decision Makers, Students and Consumers.
These key people at best expose themselves to a maximum of 30 entries per search. In general through they "see" none but the first 3 entries for any given search.
The Big Deal
This majority share of attention for a minority portion of information, combined with the illusion of relevance through ranking of results, constitutes their main impression of you, your company, your brand.
Here's What That Means
After a Google search showed that published psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar had used LSD in the late 1960's, he was rejected entry into the USA and is no longer welcome in that country.
Says a USA Customs and Border Protection agency spokesman; "If you are or have been a drug user that's one of the many things that can make you inadmissible to the United States."
One: are you sure about that early afternoon Vodka tweet you just published?
Two: how difficult is it to rank you as a drugs pushing kingpin?
In 2007 a man who had been missing for years mysteriously reappeared, having no recollection of what had happened.
While police and other investigators were still flabbergasted a single mother typed "John Anne Panama" into Google. The first image that came up is the one that solved the case and got John Darwin behind bars.
One: which photos of you are out there on the net? Do they support your story (whether the story is private or corporate branding is irrelevant).
Two: which of those photos could be made to harm you?
If you're one of the world's largest technology companies and people search for the scanning software you bundle, what are they to think when out of the first 5 results only one is positive? (Compare with K Mart, Tim Hortons and Purina who do better job of trying to control the conversation; top award goes to Nescafe which apparently has never ever done anything else but make great products, support faraway places and in general, page after page, has been nothing but a swell company)
Here's What It Could Mean
The "3 first results" view we have on search is the Internet's equivalent of the 10 second sound bite.
Right now Obama's and McCain's results are quite clean, partly, I believe, because these searches are monitored for quality. Certain
crap spam won't make it into these results until the election is well behind us.
But highlighting certain things from the past by making them come up through certain searches; this, I predict, will become common place.
Offensive SEO, so to say, will become common place. It will be sneaky and hard to trace as you can't monitor nor investigate every single search.
Matching good or damning "3 first results" to key and fringe searches will become as common place as buying AdWords for those searches is right now. Only AdWords is easily traceable, this isn't.
The key here is that you don't need to own the "conversation", you don't need to have every single blog post under control. You need to control the top 3 entries.
The task to build or destroy, improve or damage, might be much easier, much simpler, than we thought.