Bad search results can kill a brand. When your brand is generating negative search results, you'll of course quickly attempt to remove the posts to save your reputation. Unfortunately, it can't all be removed, but some of it can. For content in search results that can be removed, this guide will let you know every way there is to make it go away.
Here are a few of the ways online content can be removed - either from the site itself, or from search results (both are avenues to the same outcome) to provide lower, or no visibility of the negative content online.
Proven ways to remove online content:
- Ask people to delete their content
- Remove content at the publisher level
- Ask people to change their content
- Remove search results from Google
- Suppress negative content
Why not remove opportunity killing content?
If your brand is having problems with negative search results you aren't going to like this statistic: 65% of people trust search engines for research. Search engines are trusted more than any other source of information. They are often the first and only source of information when searching for answers to questions. Google's featured snippets are increasing our dependance on search engine results by providing the best answers to questions right on the page, limiting our need to click on any links.
What people see online about a brand, whether that's a personal brand, company or products and services, is important. Whether it's true or not is less important - people tend to believe it anyway, or at least be soured on the brand enough to move on.
It is critical to ensure that what people see about your brand online paints a favorable picture. If it doesn't, you risk losing potential consumers. Just one negative review or post on the first page of search engine results can damage your reputation, and ultimately your business.
Removing negative reviews
Reviews can be removed if they violate the terms of service for the review sites, but what about non-review content?
Removing search results at the source
The fastest way to change search results is to remove the content upon which the result is based completely from the website in which it exists. That usually means the author must delete it. Google cannot delete information from a website, but once it's been removed, Google will remove the listing from its search results within a few days (usually).
Removing search results from Google
If deleting content from a publisher (a blog, news site, video channel, etc.) doesn’t seem feasible, or doesn’t work, the second choice may be to ask Google and Bing to remove something from their indexes. But that doesn’t remove the content from the site itself, it just makes it far more difficult to find. And if it's more difficult to find, less people will see it.
1. Get the author to delete their own content
First, the bad news. In our 10+ years of experience we've found that a Webmaster will most often not remove online content because - after all - they put it there in the first place. But sometimes they will remove it. Either way, it's worth a shot to ask.
It often comes down to finding what they want. What motivates them?
We've made some pretty interesting offers on behalf of our clients. We've given to charities in their name, provided direct payment, shown them the error of their ways, or sometimes after cooling down they just felt bad and needed a little nudge to remove it. People are motivated by many things. You might be surprised what works.
Tactics to get online content removed
The following tactics work best for people rather than corporations. Every author is different. If you feel contacting the author to get online content deleted is the right approach, here are a few ways to get people to take down a blog post, article, video, or other online content:
- Appeal to their altruistic side: "You had every right to post that review. I hope I've made it right. At this point the post is really damaging my business - would you mind removing or updating it?"
- Try the charity angle: "I see you support the local little league. I know removing the post you wrote might take some of your valuable time. I'd be happy to donate to the _____________ little league in your name or anonymously as a thank you for taking it down."
- Take the capitalist route: "I'd like to sponsor the page you wrote about our business. We'll request a few modifications, and you'll be well compensated for your time." Note: Modifications may mean removing the business' name, adding a special meta tag to make Google ignore the page (noindex), or removing the page altogether.
Asking someone to remove content can have downsides
For example, Reputation X works with attorneys who have made the sometimes huge mistake of sending a legal demand letter to a webmaster only to have the information added to the original page - and then have many people comment on the content - refreshing it and making it longer and stronger.
Refreshing the content of the page can make it rise in search results instead of disappear. This is because Google often responds to fresh information by promoting it higher in search results.
A phone call is usually a better method of communicating with someone for the following reasons:
- It's better that the request come from a human, not an email. The human voice can communicate emotion far better than written methods. If you have a true story of how the post is affecting you, a phone call is the way to go.
- A voice conversation can't be copied and pasted onto the internet directly. If a person wants to do you harm the last thing you want to do is give them an easy way to copy and paste your plea onto the internet.
This last point is important. If the author refreshes the content with more content it could make it rise in search.
Why does content rise in search results when refreshed?
Search engines like fresh content more or less depending on the kind of content it is. News content must be very fresh - it's news after all - and by its nature has limited shelf life. Blog content less so, but it's still important.
So consider carefully before you ask the webmaster to remove a page. If you think it will come back to bite you later, use another method.
2. Have content removed at the publisher level
If the author won't remove the content, or you think it is a bad idea to even ask, ask the webmaster or publisher of the site upon which the information lives to remove the page completely. This doesn't work on personal blogs because the webmaster, publisher, editor and author are often all the same person. But it may work on medium-sized sites like local or small town news sites.
To find the owner of a site use a Whois tool like Whois.net or DomainTools. A little research can point you to someone in charge. But sometimes that information is protected by domain privacy. If a website does not have domain privacy enabled, the name, address and phone number of the owner of a website will often be visible. A whois record might look like this:
You can also check the Contact Us page of the site, or look up employees of the company that own the site using LinkedIn.com.
When you find the right person, try modified versions of the steps outlined in the tactics to get online content removed section above.
Notice that no lawyers have been called yet. :-)
3. If they won't remove content, maybe they'll change it
Ask the webmaster of the site containing the information to remove the search phrases from the page. For example, if your company name is mentioned on the page and/or description of the page (in the HTML), and/or Title of the page (also HTML), the webmaster can change the words so your company name no longer exists on the page.
Here is an example of the "change keywords" tactic: Let's say you own a company called.... oh, let's call it "Enron." And a local publisher writes a story with the headline "Enron CEO Caught Juggling Kittens." You'd ask the publisher to change the headline to something like "Local CEO Caught Juggling Kittens." They'd remove all mentions of the company but the article would still remain.
The next time a search engine crawls the page it will not find the search phrase and should, in time, demote and then remove the search result.
This can work if the article has been up for quite some time and is no longer generating traffic and income for the publisher. Small publishers will sometimes make this sort of change in return for compensation, or out of the goodness of their hearts (rare).
4. Keep the page but make it invisible to Google
Ask the publisher to add a NOINDEX tag to the header of the HTML on the page. Your company name still exists on the page, but the NOINDEX tag tells search engines not to crawl the page any longer. Within a few weeks, the page is normally removed automatically from search results.
This is what a NOINDEX tag looks like:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex">
5. How to remove search results from Google
There are some cases where a search engine will remove information. Here are some examples:
Identify theft or financial harm as grounds for removal
Reputation X has gotten many pages removed due to terms of service violations. This month alone we've gotten more than a dozen pages removed for this reason. We refer to the complete removal of search results from Google as a “googlectomy." Google describes the information they will remove as things like bank account and credit card numbers and signature images, or other information that could cause financial fraud or identify theft.
Sexually explicit information can be removed from SERPs
Sexually explicit information posted without consent will be removed from Google’s index. It has to meet these criteria:
- You're nude or shown in a sexual act without consent
- You're under age
- You intended the content to be private and the imagery was made publicly available without your consent (e.g. "revenge porn")
- You didn't consent to the act and the imagery was made publicly available without your consent
Legal reasons search engines may remove content
Google and Bing will also remove copyrighted information. This falls under the “legal removals” area. It's considered a "DMCA" removal. Google will ask which service you’d like information removed from, for example Google web search, Blogger, YouTube, etc.
Types of content that may be removed include sites with malware or phishing software, trademark violations, and certain kinds of personal information like social security numbers.
Europeans get Right to Be Forgotten, others don't
Personal information will be removed from Google if a web page is in breach of European privacy laws sometimes known as “Right to be Forgotten” laws; if your government ID number or bank account exists on the page; or if there’s a hand written image of your signature.
For copyright infringement use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act
The DMCA protects copyright owners. Google often respects this, and they have a removal process for doing so. But we’ve found that using legal means works far more often than a simple DMCA take-down request on their site.
So, yes, lawyers do have a reason to exist (in fact, they’re some of our best clients)!
The Downside of the DMCA: Chilling Effects / Lumen
Google may send a copy of each legal notice they receive to Lumen (formerly Chilling Effects) for publication and annotation.
This means that even though you have something removed from Google’s search results, there will still be a notice at the bottom of the search results page saying something has been removed.
When a searcher clicks on the notice they may see a notice that shows the name of the person or entity that made the request to have the information taken down.
Pushing bad content down, and good content up
If none of the following will work, there are still some options to clean up your search results. If you've tried it all and were unsuccessful at removing the content, you can still take a proactive approach to push their content down in search results by creating your own positive content to rise to the top.
If this didn't work...
- Asking the author to take down the content
- Asking the publisher to remove the content
- Having the author or publisher change the content
- Getting a special Google invisibility tag added
- Asking Google to remove the content
... suppressing/pushing down the content so it's far less visible is the way to go.
How does suppression of online content work?
Secret: Suppression isn't so much suppression as it is promotion.
The best reputation management techniques make the web better. Bing and Google rely on users finding their search engines valuable. To do this they return the best possible search results. The best search results are those that most appropriately fit the searchers intent - this is called “relevance."
Suppression, or pushing down negative search results, is the act of creating better content and promoting it to drive negatives down. If information cannot be removed at the source, or at the search engine level, suppression is a viable alternative.
How to suppress negative search results?
In short, give Google what it wants. At Reputation X, we measure the strength of a given page based on an authority score - a number on a scale of one to one hundred. If the page to be buried has a high score, content must be created and promoted that is of a higher score. The higher the authority score, the more resources are needed to affect change. We select and create the right online content, then link it together using SEO best practices meant to stand the test of time.
That’s why our results tend to stick when the efforts of other reputation companies fail.