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Google’s ‘right to be forgotten’ conundrum

Fri, 16/05/2014 - 12:33

The puzzling decision in mid-May by the European Court of Justice to require Google to change search results at the request of ordinary people creates an interesting complexity for the search giant. It’s also likely to catapult the rather secretive tactic of online reputation management (ORM) into the spotlight as this is how businesses have traditionally dealt with unwanted appearances in search listings.

The so called "right to be forgotten" case centred on a complaint by a Spanish man that the appearance in Google’s search results of an old auction notice about his home being repossessed infringed his privacy.

Although the ECJ doesn’t require the original information source to be removed, it does want any links to the source material to be deleted from search results. While Google’s withholding comment for the time being, chances are it’ll appeal – partly because the ruling appears to contradict our rights to freedom of speech and partly because of the sheer complexity of deciding what to keep and what to delete.

Regardless of the outcome an appeal, once thing’s for sure: people will be more aware of the longevity of bad news and will be more focused in their attempts to mitigate it.

Within 48 hours of the ruling being announced, the BBC reported that Google had received requests from a doctor who wanted patients’ negative reviews of his performance expunged, a politician who asked for stories about past misdemeanours to be de-indexed and a sex offender who requested links to stories about his conviction be deleted.

But what does the ruling mean for businesses wanting to bury bad news?

Even if it holds up to an appeal, it’s worth bearing in mind that the legislation that was invoked in the initial challenge related to an EU privacy directive designed to protect individuals. So it won’t be applicable outside Europe for the foreseeable future and it won’t work for corporates who have skeletons in their closets.

That leaves online reputation management (ORM) as the best bet for those wanting to uphold their reputation from damaging stories.

ORM is one of the least understood elements of digital marketing, but it’s likely to receive significant attention in the coming months as corporates start to realise it’s the best way for them to respond to an unwelcome appearance in the search engine return pages (SERPS).

ORM works on the principle that search engines can only display a limited number of links (roughly 10) on each page. It also plays to human behaviour. Few of us rarely venture beyond the second or third pages of search engine results.

If a search engine thinks your bad news is more credible and relevant to a user’s query that anything else that’s happened to you, it’ll give prominence to links that lead to the negative stories. But if it thinks that balanced (or even positive stories) are more relevant, it’ll relegate the bad stuff, pushing it into the hinterland of the SERPs.

Given this, the same search engine optimisation principles that companies use to gain prominent rankings for product pages can be used to promote positive stories about them, burying the unwanted news deep in the SERPS.

As search engines want to show some variance on their results pages, the best approach to an ORM project is to identify pages with balanced stories about your brand that appear on high authority 3rd party websites.

By building link to these pages using anchor text that incorporates keywords being used in search queries that turn up results pointing to the negative stories you will start to influence the SERPs.

Over time, search engines will recalibrate their understanding of the web pages that are most relevant to the user search query, ultimately promoting the good news about your business and burying the bad.

While the above may be an oversimplification of how ORM works (a strategy needs careful consideration and must be implemented sensitively to avoid the embarrassing and damaging publicity that could ensue if the ORM initiative is spotted), it does underscore the message that the legal route is not the way that corporates can salvage a damaged reputation.

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