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Reputation Management Game Changer – Court Ruling on Sensitive Information

There has been a new ruling from Europe’s highest court on Tuesday, May 13th, regarding Google search results containing private information. The European court ruled that if information is found to be irrelevant or outdated, users have the option of asking Google to remove such links from its database. If asked, Google must amend the links to such information.

According to the judges ruling, “If, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, the data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.”

As a result, there is now a court order which effectively regulates what Google is allowed to display on their own website.

For a summary of this article, please click here for the quick version

Reputation Management

Reputation management is a service provided by many online marketing agencies designed to enhance a company’s online reputation, and in many cases, suppress negative information displayed about a company or individual. It is the latter service offering which is most often associated with reputation management. Typically, individuals who have criminal records, or who have received negative publicity will pay to have web properties built around them and positive press to be released in order to counteract the negative impressions. This court ruling could significantly impact this service.

Rather than working with an agency to improve their online impression, an individual can now request that the owner of a web property removes the offensive content, and if they do not respond, the individual can take it directly to Google who can be court-ordered to take this down. Though this many eliminate much poor content released by web companies who try to shortcut reputation management, it also gives an easy out and significantly less consequence and deterrent for those who are engaging in poor practices.

Google’s Previous Cooperation

Although Google is upset with the ruling, calling it “disappointing,” it has in the past voluntarily acted to protect individuals in similar reputation management cases. In October of 2013, Google made a change to it’s algorithm commonly known as the “Mugshot Update” to stop high ranking websites from appearing which displayed mugshots of arrested individuals.

These mugshot websites were an extortion scheme in which the website owner would scan public records for mugshots, put them on a website optimized to rank high on page one for the individual’s name, and charge several hundred dollars to take the mugshot down. The mugshot would also appear on other sites, which would require separate payment for the same function.

Google, recognizing the moral questionability of this practice, acted on their own to stop this from happening by significantly reducing the rankings of these mugshot websites. However, being forced by courts to change their website rankings for other areas without the same moral ambiguity is not sitting well with the search engine.

Do It Yourself – Or Not

This latest ruling will now make it easier for individuals to take reputation management into their own hands. For many individuals and small businesses, this is a good thing – especially when there are invalid claims and blatantly inflammatory postings. However, we expect that for many, the process will still be difficult to manage and that web marketing agencies will begin altering their service offerings to work with Google to eliminate the negative results.

Individuals will likely greatly benefit from working with agencies, as agencies will do this many times and develop expedient systems as opposed to an individual whom has never worked with Google before and needs to figure out not only how to navigate through Google, but even how to get a hold of a live person and confidently make a case.

We predict that the reputation management market will not go away as a result of the new ruling, but will simply change and adapt.

The Ruling Only Effects Europe – For Now

Remember, this ruling has not yet come to the United States. Things will go on as normal here. However, we do expect them to change in the not-too-distant future. It is likely that multiple cases will now be brought to the courts in the United States and that they will be forced to make a ruling. It is expected (but not guaranteed) that the US will follow suit, and that we will have a similar ruling here. It is in the best interest of online marketing agencies and affected companies/individuals to start preparing now.

This Will Not Affect Everyone

Though this ruling will cause some personal information to be taken down, the question of “how much” remains. Google may take things down very quickly in fear of the courts, but we do not believe that will be the likely scenario. It will probably take time for systems to be established and for everyone to get a good handle on how much information will be taken down. Many different types of posts will likely undergo long fights while everyone tries to figure out exactly what the ruling applies to.

We believe that there are many individuals and companies who wish this case affected them, but it won’t. These are cases such as:

  • News reports of arrests – Though such content may be perceived to be inflammatory by the affected individual, they are in fact news reports written to document facts. These are certainly relevant in the time in which the events occur, but may be relevant in the distant future as well. As long as they aren’t written as a bias piece or with inflammatory intent, these should be considered news and will likely stay.
  • Review sites – Websites like Yelp, Zagat, and Healthgrades are designed to give subjective information and honest assessment of real user experience. We cannot foresee such sites as being required to only post positive reviews and think they will largely be unaffected. However, this may change sign-in and profile requirements to ensure real users are making the reviews, and it will be likely that any reviews that cannot be substantiated in some way (i.e. attached to a real person) may be subject to removal.
  • Government reports – Documents from government agencies such as the FCC and FDA regularly report on findings and rulings. These will not be eliminated, even if they have the potential to be damaging, as they are government reports and matters of public record.
  • Public records – Any documentation that is a part of public record will remain online. This may be anything from purchase prices of homes to court records.

Who Will Be Affected?

There are many people who will be affected by the ruling, and these will likely (but not exclusively) be individuals. We estimate that the search results brought before Google for removal will primarily consist of results such as:

  • A disgruntled ex writes a blog post or creates a website about how awful their ex is.
  • Fake reviews are created on a website such as www.complaintwire.org to damage a competitor’s company.
  • Incorrect information is portrayed on a website and is damaging to an individual’s reputation.
  • Someone posts an embarrassing/suggestive picture of a classmate

Where to Next?

At this point, we need to wait and see. There are no guarantees that this will make it to the United States, and if there is something that is damaging to your reputation, it does need to be taken care of immediately. If it does seem to be an insurmountable task, there could be hope on the horizon. For agencies, removal of information may be easier than you think. Please feel free to contact us if you’re having an issue. We can go over it with you and advise you of the actual difficulty and best plan of attack.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read):

  • Europe’s highest court ruled Tuesday that Google would have to take down some sensitive information from their search results if requested.
  • Google is unhappy with the ruling, though it has voluntarily removed derogatory and extortion based posts in the past.
  • For now, this ruling will only affect Europe.
  • Many individuals may be able to perform reputation management themselves, though it may be beneficial to work with an agency.
  • This will likely affect personal attacks and posts of information (i.e. posts by jealous ex, fake inflammatory posts, etc.).
  • Review sites (i.e. Yelp, Healthgrades, etc.) are likely to be minimally affected.
  • Documentation of fact (i.e. news reports, government documentation, etc.) will likely not be affected.

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