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When SEO goes wrong: reputation management, article spinners and ethical dilemmas

In 2008 Canadian musician Dave Carroll was travelling with United Airlines. During a layover he heard a fellow passenger remark that baggage handlers on the tarmac in Chicago were throwing guitars. He arrived at his destination only to discover his $3,500 guitar was severely damaged. After an unsatisfactory response from the airline, he used his musical talent to create a song he dubbed ‘United breaks guitars’ with a music video and all. The song went viral and the incident created a PR disaster for the airline. But now, when Googling the airline, there is no mention of the incident. This is an example of the power of search engine optimisation (SEO) and its role in protecting brand reputation. We chat to Pure SEO’s Richard Conway about this idea and the threat of negative SEO.

And, in case you haven’t heard Carroll’s song before, here it is for your listening/viewing pleasure.

Luckily for United Airlines, its reputation hasn’t been forever tarnished by the incident, though of course with a change up of key words in a Google search, there’s still a multitude of information about what happened.

“You can’t get rid of stuff, but you can promote positive stuff ahead of the negative,” says Pure SEO chief executive Richard Conway.

He says a good way of doing that is teaming up with a decent PR agency whereby the brand can get positive stories in the media.

“Or actively working on a strategy where you’re creating positive news, it might be a charity event or some other event that gets publicity. You could do all sorts of good things that could take precedence if it’s managed and publicised well enough.”

He says in some cases though, if there’s been a scandal, the negative information will stick around for a while.

An example we posed to Conway was the results that appear when you Google search Luigi Wewege, who was involved in the Len Brown scandal. This man is a business owner, yet when his name is Googled, much like a recurring negative news headline, we see more about his involvement in the scandal than the work he does.

Conway says in cases like this, there is no way to bury that information ethically.

“It will disappear ethically if it’s quietened down. But while it’s happening there’s no way to deal with it in an ethical way. If you did it in an unethical way you could create an article spinner and spam the internet, with hundreds of copies of a positive article with slight differences. It still happens.”

But, he says often once incidents have gone viral on social media there’s no stopping it. And of course in certain cases, this is a good thing.

“As soon as something becomes virally significant there is no stopping it. If lots of people are talking about it and sharing it, that’s what Google wants to show. It wants to show relevant stuff for searchers.”

But this sure doesn’t stop brands or individuals from trying, he says, and Pure SEO is selective about the reputations it decides to manage.

“We’ve had quite a few unsavoury characters ask us to [hide negative online content]. And so a lot of the work we [choose instead] is from agencies or PR companies from bigger organisations.”

He says Pure SEO ended up removing the link from its website for online reputation management because of the kind of characters that were approaching the company, and there are lots of cases it has to flat out refuse.

“You have to be able to sleep at night. We rely on other people [PR companies, agencies] bringing decent ones to us. When we try promoting online reputation management we get a lot of shady people coming out of the wood work.”

For the most part big companies are fine and usually want certain things to appear when people search, instead of burying anything negative, he says. “They want particular things in there like awards they have run or something they have done recently. It’s shuffling results around to suit what that company wants to show.”

He says if you think about it, it’s simply good marketing to do the process properly rather than making stuff up.

“So the best and most effective way of doing it is creating really good positive media articles and having a strategy around that. When we work with companies we will generally work hand-in-hand with a really good PR agency and we will ensure the positive stuff gets promoted as far and wide as it can.”

On the note of being ethical with SEO, Conway says Pure SEO is currently looking at an industry code of conduct with the IAB, so people have ethical outfits and a channel to go down.

“It hurts the industry,” he says. “So we will work with other SEO agencies that we know do a good job.”

He says it’s also not uncommon for dodgy SEO links to be created. And it happened to Pure SEO’s own website.

“[They would] create SEO links that they created or bought and Google got wise to this and the algorithms started penalising these people but then that spawned another industry where people would build negative links to their competitors. And this happened to us.”

In an article by Conway, he writes:

“Pure SEO has dominated the search ranking for the past four years, using a combination of high quality SEO, PR and content marketing. However in the last week they saw a small dip in their rankings and decided to investigate. Upon investigating the drop it became immediately apparent that someone was sabotaging Pure SEO by undertaking negative SEO to their website.”

He says fortunately for Pure SEO, it was able to detect this threat very quickly and use Google’s Disavow process to eliminate the threat. “It does however raise the question, if you do not have a large specialist digital marketing team behind you, like Pure does, and you don’t know how to deal with this threat, what could you do? The ramifications could be catastrophic to your business if you rely on online leads and sales.”

“Google claim they are good at detecting it but it’s something they have to deal with continuing forward.”

The issue can get so serious in regard to protecting reputation, that in the US an SEO named William Stanley was sentenced to more than three years in prison and ordered to pay $174,888 in fees for SEO extortion.

Stanley extorted individuals and companies by threatening to engage in illegitimate SEO work: posting “fraudulent comments and creating negative reviews online, if the victim did not pay him a certain sum of money”, Search Engine Land wrote.

While nothing of this scale has happened in New Zealand, it shows how much SEO can affect your brand reputation. People have trust in Google. When we type things in we expect to find a range of honest results. So if something negative came up about a brand, we would naturally take that into consideration, and this can have detrimental affects to a brand’s success and survival. 

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