Online Reputation Repair—Tales From a Grizzled SEO Vet

Published: Apr 20, 2023  |  

SEM and SEO specialist and small business owner

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Hang around outside any PR firm and chances are that you’ll see more than one person exiting with a haunted 1,000-yard stare. Ask each of them their jobs, and assuming they don’t threaten to call the police, one will respond that they’re tasked with looking after online reputation repair. 

I’m that person. And like many hairy middle-aged men in 1980s’ United States, I’ll have war stories from my time in ’nam. The ’nam in this case being brand NAMe damage on Google (yes, I know it doesn’t quite work, but I was committed to it. No, you shut up).

And I’m going to share some of these war stories, which will hopefully help you manage your own online fallout if you’re in the midst of a reputational crisis. 

So, without further ado…


Don’t amplify your negative results…

This is an exceedingly tempting error and is very much like the famed Streisand Effect in traditional PR. If you’re defending yourself in an article, a blog or social media, do not link to any negative pieces—particularly those you’re trying to hide. You’re drawing attention to negative content that you don’t want people to see. Plus, if you know anything about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), then you’ll be aware that improving the off-site signals to a website can enhance its performance in search results.


Don’t engage in negative SEO…

Negative SEO is (at its most basic level) the process by which target websites have their search ranking damaged by the use of “black hat” tactics. The theory goes that if you want to hide a website/search result, you will employ certain methods and as such get it removed, penalized, or its reputation damaged. This isn’t quite as straightforward as it once was, but there remain a couple of issues with this approach.

Firstly, it is ethically questionable and arguably illegal. Secondly, I do know of one company whose search “expert” attempted to damage the rank of a competitor website but, due to poor use of negative SEO, ended up improving its rank. In short, please, please, please don’t use negative SEO or let your agency persuade you to do so. No good will come of it.


Don’t throw good money after bad and believe false promises…

There’s a reason why SEO agencies and professionals are often accused of selling snake oil. Just like those notorious scam artists in the past, the more nefarious in the industry will use jargon and offer big promises that they simply cannot keep. 

Let’s get this straight. Confidence in an SEO professional is essential. However, one who promises the moon and guarantees perfect results is not trustworthy. This is even more the case when it comes to repairing an online reputation in a crisis. Do not throw money at these people. They cannot guarantee a clean page of results, and if they’re not willing to explain their methods, then please run a mile in the opposite direction. Look for agencies who are entirely open about their methods, who are assured in their approach and ideally offer more than SEO solutions alone. 


Leave your Wikipedia alone…

I once worked with a client who had tried to delete critical references from their Wikipedia page (it was ranking in position one and hence very damaging within their search results).

You may not know this, but you shouldn’t edit your own Wikipedia page—it’s very much against the website’s rules and will be called out at the slightest suspicion (it’s remarkably easy to spot). My next warning is that if you do edit your page, don’t do it to make yourself look good with gushing praise and links to your own press releases.

Finally, if you treat me like my children do and refuse to listen to me, don’t, I plead with you, don’t use your company’s name for your Wikipedia username. It took literally hours for my client’s deletions to be flagged as suspicious, the edits to be rolled back and a notice placed atop the page.

All of which resulted in said client hitting the headlines (in their particular niche) for editing their own page and hiding negative press. This ended up with further hit pieces and amplification of the original story. Just a spectacular afternoon’s graft. They weren’t to know this would happen, it’s not their industry. But it was very much an example as to why you should consult with professionals before you do anything yourself.


Don’t pay once and forget about it…

One of the problems with one-hit online reputation repair is that if your situation is a little more, let’s say… organic, then you may clean your search results initially, but future negative press (whether to do with the original issue or a new one) will invariably pop up on page one. It’s why sometimes it’s better to get an agency on a rolling retainer or even hire a dedicated professional for your company. 

This is particularly pertinent if you have a *camera close-up, cymbal smash* ARCH ENEMY. This may sound overly dramatic, but you’d be surprised by how many clients we’ve worked with who have opponents with vested interests in damaging their search results. My gaffer refers to the oft-needed service as “Whac-A-Mole” after the arcade game of the same name. New negative press emerges and we whack it down—whether through legal approaches, interaction with Google or by SEO displacement.

It’s not needed for everyone, nor does it need to be the result of having a foe who hates you, but proactive and quick-response SEO is very important for many who want their search results continually curated or protected.


Don’t try to hide your horrific crimes…

This is a bit of a personal preference (and indeed that of my employer.) If you’ve committed a crime that you’re ashamed of, invariably we are not the people for you. I believe wholeheartedly in second chances and rehabilitation, but there are many crimes I simply will not touch and will have us reaching for the mind-bleach. When we first launched our service around a decade ago, not a month would go by where we wouldn’t have a child abuser or someone convicted of domestic abuse asking us to hide their past crimes. Those conversations were very, very short.

My favorite example of this was a notorious U.S.-based criminal who got in touch to ask us to hide his long list of crimes (kidnapping, assault, setting someone on fire… the usual). For a start, his search results were pretty much all negative. Throw in that we simply wouldn’t work with someone of this type from an ethical or practical standpoint. Finally, why on earth was he trying to improve his image? Surely the notoriety and criminal kudos offered by his search results were what he actually wanted?  Well, I’m not at the bottom of the Hudson with concrete boots, so maybe he’s turned his life around after all.

And now the clichéd closer; I could go on. But I won’t.  

Because that’s a more than ample word count…

What can I say? I’m always thinking of SEO.

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