To Change Your Search Results, It Will Cost You

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(Jens Meyer/AP)
(Jens Meyer/AP)

As people become more concerned about the information available about them on the Internet and how it is used, they turn to different approaches to protect their online presence.

"There has been somewhat of a shift in terms of this overall concern about the vast amount of information," said Michael Zimmer, who studies and teaches about internet privacy at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, told Here & Now. "And I think for a lot of people, they're getting this sudden realization that, 'You know what, maybe I need to slow down a little bit, or even remove myself all together.'"

You can’t really just send an email to Google and say, 'Please remove all these websites that have information about me.'

Michael Zimmer

Trying to be 'unGoogleable'

Most drastically, people attempt to be “unGoogleable” — meaning no information about them can be found in search results.

But that's typically not possible.

"You can't really just send an email to Google and say, 'Please remove all these websites that have information about me,'" Zimmer said.

However, he says it is worth paying attention to what information about you can be found online.

Online reputation management

"It's going to be hard to be unGoogleable, but at least you can try to monitor and manage a little bit what about what is discoverable about you," Zimmer said.

One of the method — which has become a highly lucrative industry — is online reputation management (ORM).

Individuals and businesses use ORM services to stock their search results with positive articles and reviews. As a result, the more negative results are driven toward the bottom.

'Black ops' reputation management

In the ethical gray area of online reputation management is the creation of fake articles about people or companies whose reputations have been spoiled.

Graeme Wood reported in New York magazine about the world of "black ops" reputation management.

The founder of that company told me that $10,000 a month was really the minimum amount that someone would be asked to spend.

Graeme Wood

A college classmate of his, Phineas Upham, had been accused and acquitted of tax evasion charges, but Wood became interested in how quickly the negative press about Upham was trumped by positive press when he Googled Upham's name.

"There was a whole universe of fake websites, fake magazines, fake entities, that seemed to exist and to have been built up just to make the Google profile of this person look good," Wood told Here & Now.

$10,000 per month for 'black ops' ORM

However, it wasn't apparent that the websites were fake. Wood had to do a great deal of digital investigative work to trace those websites to their source, a company called Metal Rabbit Media.

"The founder of that company told me that $10,000 a month was really the minimum amount that someone would be asked to spend to engage their services," Wood said. "The industry of online reputation management — I was quoted a figure of $5 billion nationwide. So it's quite a lot of money people are spending to make themselves look good online."

Wood says that although black ops reputation management is a questionable practice, reputation management itself isn't unethical.

Best practices 

"You can take the good things that you've done and accentuate them," Wood said. "You can take the bad things that you've done and not mention them. The unethical ways, I think, consist mainly of taking things that you haven't done and awarding yourself garlands for those, and that's what I think happened in this case."

However, not everyone is Phineas Upham.

"Luckily, most of us are just not interesting enough for the New York Times to write about us when we do stupid things," Wood said. "But, if we happen to suffer the fate of being so interesting that the New York Times does write about our crimes and alleged crimes, then the best thing we can do is amazing things that are impressive and that are real."


  • Michael Zimmer, assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He tweets @michaelzimmer.
  • Graeme Wood, journalist whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other publications. He tweets @gcaw.

This segment aired on August 13, 2013.


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