Google Dishes Up the Dirt

What is it about Google that it seems to love dishing up the dirt on people and companies? Perform a search on anyone or anything that’s had the slightest bit of controversy in the past, and you’re almost sure to see an article, blog, or review about that in the top search results.

This makes it hard when you’re trying to boost your online reputation by getting more positive sites to rank higher, pushing those negative sites down off the first page. But just when you think you’ve made progress, one of the negative sties will pop back to the upper part of the search results, like a buoy that’s been pushed deep underwater and suddenly released.

You know the kind of sites I’m talking about. The ones dedicated to airing complaints, revealing scams, and generally acting as defenders the First Amendment right to publish whatever you like about someone online, just because you’re feeling ornery about their customer service that day.

Of course, these sites provide a useful public service. The review sites in particular have become invaluable for consumers who want to perform a little due diligence before spending money. The main trouble for some of my clients, and thus for me, is that a negative review or complaint from years ago can still appear in the top ten search results. It’s as if every time you meet someone new they’re told about that lamp you broke when you were five years old — and now they’re not so sure they can trust you around fine furniture.

Any major scandal a company has been involved in will almost certainly come up in the first couple of pages, especially if there was a lot of news coverage. No matter that it was ten years ago, the controversy was overblown, the upper management was replaced, the company was reformed, and all was forgiven. It still tarnishes the reputation in the eyes of anyone performing an online search.

So why does Google seem to have a preference for all these negative sites? Does their algorithm just have a mean streak, as if it were developed by a surly, anti-social, anti-consumerist programmer who delights in seeing successful companies brought down and ridiculed in the eyes of the public?

Well yes, there’s something in their algorithm, but it’s not inherent meanness. It’s just that Google rewards sites that get a lot of traffic. If a page appears in the search results and a lot of people click on the link, the page is likely to rise higher in the results. Then more people see it and click on it, and it moves up another notch. A vicious — or virtuous — cycle, depending on your perspective.

And what kinds of links do people love to click on? Ones that promise to expose the truth about someone or something … that reveal scandals, misconduct, or shocking behavior … that give us the inside scoop on scams and faulty products … and that let us exercise our feeling of moral outrage at some offense, real or imagined. Reading about someone else’s misfortune seems to provide many people with a bit of guilty pleasure. Witness how popular the tabloids have been. As Bette Midler noted, “The worst part of success is to try to find someone who is happy for you.”

So we can’t really blame Google, since its algorithms are just serving up what people want. And if people want dirt, that’s what they’ll get.

Of course, that makes my job more challenging. Trying to get positive pages to rank above the negative sites means working against the forces of human nature, at least the part that derives satisfaction from another’s misfortune. And this is why you can never become complacent in your online reputation management efforts, because those negative sites will keep creeping up the search rankings if you don’t constantly work at making the positive pages rank higher.