By now most everyone, especially business owners, knows that Google is the new first impression. A negative link appearing on the first page of search results for a business or individual can seriously impact the bottom line, not to mention the acquisition of potential investors, talent, and partners.
According to a 2015 study conducted by Moz, businesses with four or more negative articles about their company or products risk losing up to 70 percent of potential customers. That number is probably even higher today.
Consider the case of a highly respected and sought-after Texas plastic surgeon who experienced this firsthand. No, it wasn't because he botched someone's surgery or ran his business poorly – he was involved in a messy divorce. The party on the other side was a nationally recognized business leader, and the story was picked up by local and national media. The first-page search results for his name and his practice were dominated by tabloid website headlines. He lost long-time clients and employees over something personal that had nothing to do with his business.
If this surgeon had been located in the European Union, he could have petitioned Google to delist or "forget" these search results. Given the situation, the search engine would have most likely complied. Instead, he had to seek the help of an online reputation management firm.
Just over four years ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union passed what is now known as "The Right to be Forgotten." This landmark legislation dictates that Google must comply with individuals' requests to remove certain search results that relate to their names if the results are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive."
If Google or other search engines discern that a request meets these criteria, the offending links are delisted from all European search results, meaning the content will still exist but cannot be found using a search engine. Someone would need to know exactly what they were looking for on exactly the right website.
Since May 2014 Google has received almost 700,000 Right to be Forgotten requests, for just over 2.5 million URLs and delisted 44 percent of them according to Google's most recent transparency report.
What about the United States? Why don't we have this type of legislation too? The First Amendment, the very thing that gives us the right to Free Speech, denies our "right to be forgotten" by search engines. Google didn't exist in 1971, but the amendment's provisions against censorship still apply.
So what can business owners and entrepreneurs do to counter negative publicity if they lack the funds to invest in professional help? Here are three tactics to help improve your online reputation.
1. Create new content
While Google's algorithm favors negative news from authoritative websites, like news outlets, its overall goal is to present searchers with a diverse selection of properties. However, it can't do that if those properties do not exist.
Social media platforms are a great place to start, because, in most cases, Google will display at least one social profile for a business or individual's search results. Creating a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram profile, or updating and becoming more active on social media will tell Google that these items are relevant. Articles covering your industry's news and trends should be shared via these channels, and your followers will always appreciate an inspiring, motivational quote.
Industry-relevant directory listings and profiles also need to be a focus. Just like social media accounts, existing directory listings and profiles should be updated sporadically to avoid collecting virtual cobwebs.
A comprehensive bio that highlights personal and professional accolades should appear on each and every one of these properties. Recent professional headshots are also crucial to visually building your brand. A photo is truly worth a 1,000 words, plus great headshots and a standout bio will come in handy for the next action item.
2. Seek out earned media opportunities
New press is often the best antidote against negative press, especially if that negative press is outdated. Some business owners have never considered public relations and might not be aware of how much company news they are not capitalizing on. Newsworthy events – hitting a revenue/growth milestone, new hirings, new service offerings, expansions or awards – are all valuable catalysts for positive PR.
However, attaining new press is something that needs to be navigated with extreme caution. Depending on the situation, the reporter may bring up past negative press coverage. There are safer options for anyone wary of taking that risk. Contributor accounts involve some time and brainpower, but they can help build professional credibility.
Other tactics that fall into the low-risk category are professional awards and speaking opportunities. Both can provide a valuable credibility boost for a brand and individual, and it creates subject matter for a newsworthy press release or blog post.
What if an individual has followed the first two items above, but nothing has really improved? Sometimes a little patience is required. It takes time for new links to rise to the top of the search engine results page. If a few months have passed and nothing has improved, consider help in the form of search engine optimization, which is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to a web property. SEO is a complex art, and there is no cookie-cutter solution. Every situation is unique, so the approach should be too.
Finally some cautionary advice…
If an individual or company says they can "remove" search results from Google, run for the hills. In many cases, these individuals are referring to are DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedowns, which involve the creation of phony news websites claiming to hold the copyright to the negative content being hosted by the legitimate news website. These are illegal. While it may be tempting, it's not worth it.
Business owners and entrepreneurs should already be doing all of the above practices, regardless of whether they are having to counter negative publicity or not. A crisis – personal or professional – can occur at any time, and taking these proactive steps could mean the difference between sinking and swimming.