Negative search results can happen to anyone.
They’re frustrating. They’re unfair. And they can dramatically influence your chances for landing a job, earning new clients, and even getting yourself a date.
You probably have a load of questions (that’s why you’re here, right?) about fixing your search results. The world of online reputation management (ORM) can seem murky and mysterious to the uninformed, which is why I’ve put together a comprehensive list of the 33 most frequently asked questions people have about removing search results from Google. (I refer specifically to Google in this article, but the answers apply to Bing & Yahoo as well.)
One of our main tenets at Brandyourself is transparency — we want clients to know what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. Scroll through these 33 questions and find the ones that most apply to you. Or, read the whole thing to give yourself the ultimate preparation for battling that negative result. When you’re done here I highly recommend that you head over to our online reputation management guide and take things even further. Looking forward to answering any additional questions in the comments section below — see you there.
Here we go!
1. How can I get this negative result ‘taken down’?
Unless you own the content (in which case, what are you waiting for?) getting a negative result ‘taken down’ is actually quite challenging. The website owner doesn’t have to take it down, probably has little incentive to listen to you, and may even miss your email request altogether.
For these reasons, getting a negative result taken down is unlikely to work. But if you succeed it can be very effective.
Here’s how you do it. Go to whois.net and find out who the website owner is. Contact the owner by email and request (politely) for them to take down the offending material. I’d suggest going the sympathy route — explain that the material is damaging your reputation and try to show how you’ve changed for the better since the content was published. Whichever route you decide to go, remain polite and remember that if they do help you out, they’re actually doing you a favor.
NOTE: The disadvantage of this method is that it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of having a weak online presence. You still leave yourself vulnerable to other slanderous results if you don’t take actions to build up a positive presence. See #6 for more details.
2. When is it right to submit a DMCA request?
The most common reason for submitting a DMCA takedown request is if the offending material infringes on your legal rights as a copyright owner. If someone is clearly using your material without permission (photos, written content, audio, video, etc.) you can submit a request by going to your DMCA Dashboard and creating a new notice.
You’ll need to be able to identify and describe the copyrighted work, show an authorized example of the work, and provide a URL to the allegedly infringing material.
Google gets millions of these requests every month, so don’t expect to get any results unless you can make your case crystal clear. You should also be aware that any request you send will be tied to your name and all requests are made public on chillingeffects.org so think carefully about the risks before you move ahead with this request.
3. Can we take legal action?
It is very difficult to get search results legally removed because people can say pretty much anything they want online. Even if you have a strong case proving defamation or libel, the legal process can cost you thousands of dollars and take many years to settle. The court system is a notoriously difficult place to solve these kinds of problems.
If you’re interested in hearing about your legal options, definitely speak with an attorney. Just remember that a lawyer may come back to you with the upsetting news that there is nothing that can be done to take down your negative result — and still charge you for their time.
4. What about the “right to be forgotten?”
In 2014, the highest court in Europe decided that European people had the right to influence the search results for their name in some certain circumstances.
The New York Times explains:
Under the ruling, Europeans who felt they were being misrepresented by search results that were no longer accurate or relevant — for instance, information about old financial matters, or misdeeds committed as a minor — could ask search engines like Google to delink the material. If the request was approved, the information would remain online at the original site, but would no longer come up under certain search engine queries.
This sounds promising. So what’s the catch?
As of this article’s publication (August 2015), removals only apply to European versions of Google search results (Google.fr and Google.de for example) and not the American version, google.com. The number of removals so far has also been relatively small. Of the 1,000,000+ requests since the court’s decision, only 41% were approved, and that number is much smaller for specific categories like public figures, serious crimes, and child protection.
Finally, beware the risks associated with this move. According to Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand.com, Google will disclose the removal in a process similar to DMCA complaints and even report the removal on chillingeffects.org.
Google tells us that it will show disclosure when URLs are removed under the new Right To Be Forgotten method in a manner similar to above. In other words, while the URL itself is forgotten, the fact that Google was made to forget it will be remembered.
If you are still interested, you can submit a search removal request here. You must submit a copy of your photo ID and be able to prove that the offending content is “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate.”
5. Can I submit a complaint to Google?
Aside from the “right to be forgotten,” there are only a couple instances where it makes sense to ask Google to remove something.
The first is the above mentioned DMCA request. The second is regarding highly sensitive personal information like bank account numbers and signatures. The third is revenge porn. Google decided to start honoring requests to take down those kinds of damaging results as of June 2015. You can read more about that on Google’s public policy blog.
To ask Google to take down these results in these specific cases, you can submit your request here.
6. If we can’t take down the negative, what CAN we do?
The most effective way to handle a negative result is to bury it with positive, relevant content about yourself.
This is an easy three-step process.
- Build yourself a website. Buy a domain with your name in the URL (like ryanerskine.com) and build it on a simple platform like WordPress, Squarespace, or BrandYourself. Then make some high-authority social profiles that fit in with your personal brand. Everyone knows LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter but some other great ones to start with are About.me, Slideshare, Crunchbase and Youtube.
- Optimize your profiles to be search engine friendly.
- Most importantly, keep your sites and profiles updated consistently with original, quality content and lots of organic activity.
As your properties gain more authority over time, they will start to rise higher in search results for your name, eventually pushing down the negative or irrelevant results.
7. How does Google’s search algorithm work?
When you type something into the search bar, Google tries to serve you the most ‘relevant’ search results for that term. Relevancy is determined by a number of on-page and off-page ranking factors. Let’s look at a few:
On-page Ranking Factors
- Quality Content: Google rewards sites that have amazing content that provides lots of value to users. Content that is longer, well-written, and original is considered higher quality (from an algorithmic standpoint) than short, thin, and duplicate content.
- Keyword Optimization: Keywords are the core words and phrases you want to rank for in search results. In this case, the primary keyword will be your full name or business. Keyword optimization does not mean unnaturally stuffing your keyword onto your site — that kind of behavior can earn you a nasty Google penalty. Focus instead on writing engaging content and weaving your keyword in naturally when it is appropriate. Some obvious places to include your keyword are in the URL of your website, the title, the header tag, and an About page.
- Outbound Links: Outbound links, the ones you use to link out to other sites, are seen as signals of trust. Link out to authoritative sites in your industry that provide real value to the user. As a general rule of thumb, don’t exceed 25 outbound links per 1,000 words.
- Site Architecture: You want to make sure that your site structure has a logical hierarchy and that you are linking to all your pages in an easy-to-use navigational menu. Give your URL slugs appropriate titles and make the process of getting around your site as simple as possible.
Off-page Ranking Factors
- Backlinks: Links still matter a ton because search engines use them as signals of trust and relevancy. The important distinction today is that the QUALITY of the backlinks matter. One link from a highly authoritative site like the New York Times is going to be far more effective than hundreds or even thousands of links from no-name sites. The opposite is true too — spammy backlinks from link farms can do your site more harm than good. Focus on creating incredibly useful content for a target niche and you’ll be well on your way to getting a variety of links from relevant websites.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to your network to politely ask for links to your website. Appropriate places to start might be your business or a philanthropic organization that you’re heavily involved with.
- Social Engagement: It’s not clear how much weight Google gives to social connections and interactions as a ranking factor but there is a correlation between social votes and high rankings. Build your personal or corporate brand across your social network, grow your following organically, and share your content to get the most out of your social connections.
- Personalization: Local search is becoming an increasingly more important factor for search. There are many ways to take advantage of this factor, including registering your business’s address in Google+ and setting your location in your social profiles. If your site is getting loads of links from sites related to your location, it is more likely to rank, at least in that target location.
This just scrapes the surface, but it gives a good sense of the factors Google looks for when ranking search results. For more info, check out Google’s own SEO Starter Guide 2015.
8. Are there any special SEO tricks I can use?
Even as recently as a few years ago, you could get away with using “black-hat” SEO techniques, tricks used simply to game search engines like Google. These were things like link farming, cloaking, and keyword stuffing.
Today, these techniques will do you more harm than good. Google has gotten much better at detecting these tricks and penalizing the websites that use them. If you remember one thing about the future of SEO, it’s this: The arm of SEO is long, but it bends toward user experience.
Want to know the best SEO trick in the book? Do things that real users would do. Create incredibly engaging and valuable content that makes other people want to share it and link to it. Play by Google’s rules, and you’re much more likely to win in the long run.
9. Can we buy backlinks?
Buying backlinks falls into the “black hat” camp and is never a good idea. Backlinks from link farms and the like are in breach of Google’s webmaster guidelines and the search giant is quite adept at identifying violators and dishing out serious penalties.
10. How long does it take to bury a negative result?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Anyone who guarantees a specific timeline for pushing down a negative result is lying and, frankly, being irresponsible. Depending on the competitiveness of the keyword and the authority of the negative result, pushing a negative off the first page of Google can take up to a year or longer.
11. Can we buy traffic to our websites?
Purchasing website traffic is another “black hat” technique used to game the system and is therefore inadvisable. It might seem like an attractive short-term solution, but it is unsustainable and can actually hurt you in the long run. Google has released multiple algorithmic updates to penalize this kind of dishonest traffic-building behavior so your efforts are likely to be for naught.
Instead of buying traffic, focus on creating quality content — useful content that adds real value — and you’ll have a sustainable source of traffic for months and years to come. If you want to use some disposable income on your campaign, try strategically using paid campaigns for sites like Twitter, Stumbleupon, or Outbrain to increase your content’s reach.
12. Why is this old, irrelevant, negative result still ranking?
Google uses a number of on-page and off-page relevancy factors to determine the rankings in search results.
That negative result from years ago may not be relevant anymore but it’s probably built up lots of authority over the years. Even if it’s a static page, the rest of the site that it’s associated with might be constantly updated, which lends extra authority to that static, older page.
All the properties you’re creating for yourself will be keyword optimized and updated regularly with content, which puts them at a distinct advantage. But your properties are newer and they haven’t built up enough authority yet to overtake that ancient negative result. Here’s an example for you to visualize what happens over time.
13. Why did the negative result suddenly jump back up in the rankings?
Google frequently updates its search results based on a number of relevancy factors. Fluctuation in search results is completely normal, especially for a competitive keyword. For more information, check out question #22: “Why am I seeing different results than you?”
14. It’s been 3 months, why aren’t I seeing any results yet?
Three months is simply too short a time to see results. If you maintain regular activity on your web properties, you might start to see things rank in the first 3 pages, but you might not. Keep at it!
15. It’s been 6 months, why aren’t I seeing any results yet?
It depends how you’re measuring results. If your goal is to beat a negative result, there will be plenty of smaller successes along the way before you finally push the negative off the first page. Properties will begin to rank on the first three pages and you’ll start to displace other irrelevant results along the way.
If you’re not seeing any of your properties rank on the first three pages after 6 months, then it may be time to re-evaluate the situation. Is the keyword extremely competitive? Do you need to put more firepower behind your efforts? Is it time to restrategize the way your sites link to each other? Are there easy link-building opportunities you’re leaving on the table? Speak with a SEO specialist to come up with a new strategy to reflect what you’ve learned.
16. It’s been a year and the negative is still on the first page. Should we just chalk this up as a failure?
No! There are two things to consider:
- Firepower: Online reputation campaigns can routinely take longer than a year depending on the competitiveness of the keyword and the amount of firepower you put behind your campaign. If your properties are ranking on the first few pages, you can be sure you’re on the right path. Keep up the good work and consider increasing the amount of time you put into your campaign.
- Branding: Your online presence is not just a means to an end. It’s your personal brand and it tells a truthful, relevant story about you. That negative result may still be ranking, but it no longer defines your online presence. Are your other web properties ranking on the first page? If so, they’re mitigating the negative page’s impact and telling viewers the full story. Are you earning more monthly website views than the amount of Google searches for your name? If so, then you are beginning to really define the way you are perceived online.
17. Are there some short term tactics we can use?
No. Burying negative results takes time and there is no shortcut to generating authority on a number of web properties. Press releases can sometimes offer “flash-in-the-pan” results because they mimic a news article, but these results fall of SERPs as quickly as they arise.
18. If Twitter and LinkedIn are so authoritative, can’t we just create a bunch of those profiles for my name?
Google tends to rank only one result per domain on the first page. So while this sounds like a good idea in theory, it doesn’t typically work out in reality. It would be smarter to refocus your efforts on creating amazing content on your already-existing profiles.
19. Why does this process take so long?
It takes time for your web properties to generate enough authority to begin ranking prominently. Even if your properties are more SEO-friendly and optimized better for your name or business, they’re still much newer than that negative result. For that reason, it’s going to take time for your properties to gain enough authority to overtake it.
I’ll share the chart from question #12 here again so you can visualize what I’m talking about:
20. Is the process different if I have a negative image result?
Pushing down a negative image requires the same process as a negative search result, but a different focus. You’ll still need to build SEO-friendly web properties and generate consistent quality content, but you’ll want to remain focused on the images you upload to your sites and social profiles.
Perhaps you’ll add a gallery page to your website and embed many more images into your articles. Whatever you decide, remember to optimize your images properly: use your keyword in the file name, rename the title, and give it appropriate keyword-related alt text. Bonus tip: reduce the image size to the minimum you need for your site so you don’t slow things down.
21. How do I optimize a social profile like LinkedIn or Twitter for SEO?
There are 6 steps to optimize any social profile for great search results.
22. Why do I see different results than you’re seeing?
There are a number of reasons you might be seeing different search results than someone else. Here are the big 3:
- Location: Especially after the Google Pigeon update, people have started to notice a sometimes-dramatic change in search results depending on the searcher’s location. Your results make look horrible in New York but much better in San Francisco. Want to check? To change your search location, click ‘Search tools’ and then click your location and replace it with your preferred one. (To get a different country’s search results, go to the country-specific Google address, like Google.fr for France.)
- Personalization: Your results may be personalized based on your web browser’s cookies, your IP address, or other saved data. To avoid this issue entirely, you can reset your cookies or open up an incognito window and search from there.
- Algorithm Experiments: Whenever Google engineers want to test something, they try it on a small percentage of random users. If you’re getting different results even after clearing your cookies and searching incognito, your search may be testing a new tweak to help improve the overall results.
23. Why am I seeing different results on mobile?
It’s official — Google reports that more Google searches now take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries, including the United States. Since Google always aims to deliver the best user experience, it has increasingly prioritized mobile-responsive websites, especially after the recent “Mobilegeddon” update. If you’re seeing different results on mobile, it could be that Google is serving up results based on your search history, your location, or simply because there are some sites that are better for a mobile viewer’s experience.
24. It sounds like a long process to change my business’s search results. Should I just change my business name?
That’s up to you, but consider this: what happens when people do their due diligence and search the previous business’s name to gauge your credibility? If you think you can completely cut ties from the business, then it’s might be something to consider, but don’t go that route before adequately weighing the risks.
25. What’s the point of linking everything together?
The benefit of linking everything together in a consolidated way is that you pass little bits of authority between your web of online properties. New social properties won’t hold that much authority by themselves, but they will be much stronger once they’re tied together on the backend.
This kind of linking strategy makes sense too because it’s exactly what a real user would do. Any professional with an array of social media profiles will want to direct people back to their website. When it comes to the future of SEO, focus on doing what a real user would do and you’re likely to succeed in the long run.
26. Are we done once we push down the negative result off the 1st page?
The good news is that less than 10% of people search beyond the 1st page. You can probably afford to ease up a little once you’ve pushed the negative off, but the worst thing you can do is rest on your laurels and let your properties get stagnant. Remember that consistency is key to high search results and maintaining activity on your sites and social profiles is important to keeping them above the competition.
27. Do I need to have a blog?
You don’t necessarily NEED one, but you’d definitely be shooting yourself in the foot without one. In most cases, it’s simply too tough to get a website to rank on the first page without a consistently active component like a blog.
28. How often do I need to update my blog?
This truly depends on the nature of the negative result and the goals of your campaign. At the very least, you’ll want to update your blog once a month with a 350-450 word post. But if you spend more time on your blog — in length, quality, and consistency — you’re much more likely to drive quicker results.
29. Do I need to worry about my search results if I don’t have a negative?
Yes, absolutely. In most cases, your online presence is the first impression you’ll give to employers, clients, and even potential dates. According to 2014 statistics, 80% of employers Google job applicants before they even invite them to an interview.
Plus, preventatively building up a positive online presence is insurance for the online world. The more authority your web properties have, the harder it will be for someone’s slanderous comment to rank for your name.
30. I’m a private person — do I need to put information out there about me to beat a negative?
Long gone are the days of keyword stuffing and shoddy content. If the negative result is about you, you’ll need to at least talk about yourself in some basic terms to give Google (and ultimately, users) what they’re looking for. By naturally weaving your name into the content on your site, you’re trying tell Google that your content is not only about you, but it’s also more relevant than the negative article. Google is getting much better at gauging quality, relevant content — if you use your name without providing relevant information, you’re going to have a hard time convincing Google that your website is more relevant and authoritative than the negative.
That being said, the benefit of having your own websites and social profiles ranking for your name is that you get to choose what information goes online. Instead of a negative article besmirching your name, you’ll get to define how you’re perceived online. If you’re a private person, consider leaving out the personal details and talk instead about your creative process, your love of a particular hobby, or something else entirely.
31. Why do I need to write about myself in the third person?
Google doesn’t know who “I” am but it definitely knows my full name. Whenever possible, write bios in the third person to show Google that your content is clearly about you.
32. Will press releases help bury the negative?
There are mixed feelings about press releases in the SEO and ORM industry. At Brandyourself, we’re not sold on their efficacy in the long run. In most instances, we’ve found press releases to offer short-term successes (because they mimic news articles) without giving the desired effect of long-term rankings (because they fall off SERPs as quickly as they show up.)
Like comment sections on blogs, press releases no longer provide dofollow links, the links that are acknowledged for ranking purposes. As Google gets better at sniffing out press releases, they are likely to have less and less of an SEO impact.
33. Would getting articles published on third party publications help?
Absolutely. If you can create really engaging, high-quality pieces of content, third party publications can be a big help to any ORM campaign.
Articles about you are more difficult to acquire, and you also run the risk of a journalist mentioning a relevant negative result.
But getting ordinary articles published on third party publications is a great way to supplement your campaign. Those articles can sometimes rank by themselves merely by being affiliated with your name as an author. Plus, getting an author page on publications like Huffington Post can often provide an awesome place for a valuable backlink to your website and social media.
Have any more questions or concerns? Let us know in the comments section below!