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Three steps to removing negative search results

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by Staff Writer

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Virtually everyone has something on the Internet they wish would go away.

Misleading news results, embarrassing old photos, comments on blogs that we regret—all of this and more can follow you around permanently online. So what can you do if negative search results are hurting your online reputation?

Most solutions fall under one of the following three categories: delete, deindex, or suppress. We’ll describe each below and when it applies.

1. Deleting unwelcome content

Step 1 is to look into your options for getting the content removed. Most of the time, it isn’t possible to directly delete content that someone else has posted online. That said, there are a handful of situations in which you can get information removed. If your issue falls under one of the following scenarios, then it does often make sense to pursue deletion.

delete key

People-search sites: Online people-search companies scour the Internet collecting personally identifiable information about people. They compile this information in profiles and then sell it to anyone who asks for it. Sometimes these profiles appear prominently in an individual’s search results. In those cases, you can usually issue an opt-out request to have your information removed. The profile should then disappear from your search results within a couple of weeks.

Copyright or legal infringement claims: If the information posted is your own creative work not created under contract, then you can file a DMCA copyright claim and have the material removed. This is especially useful for photos. Similarly, truly defamatory content can usually be challenged through the courts. In both cases, however, the process can be costly and timely. You can also be penalized for filing a claim without merit, and sometimes the legal action itself can attract more unwanted attention than the original link. So if you do decide to go this route, make sure you get good legal advice from an attorney who specializes in Internet law.

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Social media violations: If someone posts negative content about you on a social network, you may be able to appeal to the site to get it removed. For this approach to work, you’ll need to show why the post violates the social network’s terms of service. For instance, Facebook’s community standards policy states that they will remove content that includes bullying, criminal activity, hate speech, and similar threats to safety. There will usually be a link or a tool attached to the post that will allow you to file a report. Before you submit a request, however, be absolutely sure that your situation qualifies under the terms of service.

2. Ask search engines to deindex results

If you can’t get the content removed directly, Step 2 is to look into deindexing. One secret of reputation management few people realize is that search engines are perfectly capable of removing links—there’s even a process in place to handle these requests. However, search engines do not take such requests lightly, so you’ll need an air-tight case.

Denver USA - May 27, 2011: Official website of the  Google with its logo. Showing Error 404 - Not Found search results. Shot on a color LCD monitor

If your request is successful, the search engine will deindex the content. In other words, the negative content won’t show up when people search for it—but it will remain online. Anyone who links to it or visits it directly can still see it.

Also, since each search engine is an independent entity with slightly different procedures and policies, you’ll need to file removal requests separately with Google, Bing, and any other search engine that concerns you.

Types of content that can be deindexed

Both Google and Bing have similar standards when it comes to deindexing. In general, they will only remove the following kinds of content:

  • Damaging personal information, such as bank account numbers or social security numbers
  • Revenge porn or other sexual imagery posted without your consent
  • Child pornography
  • Copyright violations (as discussed above)

You can report these kinds of links here:

Libel and defamation removals

Until recently, Google and Bing also regularly removed content when provided with a court order showing libel or defamation. However, Bing stopped honoring these requests in 2013, and Google adopted a similar approach at the end of 2016.

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In Google’s explanation of its removal policy, it cites the Communications Decency Act. The CDA states that websites are not responsible for third-party content that appears in their services, and as such Google is not required to deindex links unless ordered by a court.

Neither Bing nor Google have provided an explanation for their change in policy, but a number of hypotheses have been put forward by the technology press. For example, removals are costly and without business value, so they may have been deprioritized for that reason. Others have suggested that these companies don’t want to be strong-armed into making politically motivated removals in countries with weaker civic protection laws, or into potentially falling prey to underhanded legal tactics.

Regardless of what the ultimate reason is, the standard for getting defamatory materials deindexed is much higher than it was previously.

3. Bury negative search results

For the vast majority of people who have negative search results, deleting and deindexing are not possible. That’s where Step 3 comes in: burying negative content.

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In this scenario, we rely on human psychology and online reputation management techniques to make undesirable information less visible online. For a full run-down of how this works, check out our Definitive Guide to Online Reputation Management.

In brief, online reputation management is about flooding the search results with content that search engines will want to index more highly than the negative. In over 90% of searches, people don’t look beyond the first page of results. As a result, the further down the negative result appears, the fewer people will find it.

To push down negative links, you need to create quality, topical content that is well optimized and diverse. This content also has to be closely tied to the keywords that the negative is ranking for.

Over the course of several months, with strategic content creation and publication, searchers begin to find the positive information more often than the negative, sending a clear signal to search engine algorithms about which content is more important. The negative begins to move down in the search results and is replaced with the positive. This trend then reinforces itself over time.

This type of burying effect is exactly how ReputationDefender’s flagship product works. Over the course of an engagement, we create and promote positive, truthful information about our clients or their businesses. As a result, the negative content moves down and the positive content moves up.

If you have any questions about search engines, removal requests, burying negative content, or any aspect of our services, contact us for a free consultation. There’s no pressure and no obligation, just complimentary advice on what you can do to improve your online reputation.