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The Truth About Google’s Ereputation Algorithm

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As the Web introduced a plethora of new social functionalities those past years, the amount of social data publicly available online exploded. In this metamorphosis, Google stayed the one-stop shop for anyone looking for information about anyone else. When your search query is a name, your search results typically show social profiles (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, …), blogs, optionally video and/or photos results. In other words, as the Web got more social, Google remained the best information curator that could break a person’s life down to 10 links. That is why the best way to define Online Reputation is to summarize it to your first result page in Google.

For some individuals, it’s not always the good stuff that shows up in Google: Crooks, thieves, sociopaths, enrolled in a terrorist organization, people that choose to do wrong. Because of this, we’re lucky to have Google: The search engine spots negative content about them and brings it up to the front page. This way, you can avoid dealing with the wrong people.

All leads to think that Google is a good-doer, helping the helpless identify threats in a matter of minutes. The sad story behind this social justice Super Google story is that it’s nothing but a pulp fiction. Hear me out:

A lot (and I mean a lot) of people are experiencing a case of bad reputation with a site called truthaboutscientology.com. This site is on a quest to demystify the actual size and importance of the Scientology cult. To do so, the Website collects all public data available that contains names of people who attended any event organized by the cult that Tom Cruise dears. This means that if a friend invites you to attend this kind of event without informing you of the name of the organizer, your name would be listed, and through truthaboutscientology.com, this information would pop up in your first results in Google.

At first, I just thought that Google cannot be 100% accurate, and that making truthaboutscientology.com pop up in the first page could be a mistake. However, my opinion shifted a big way when I stumbled upon an old article written in 2002 by the owner of the site truthaboutscientology.com, called “Google refuses ad for critical site” (it’s a nofollow link, for whatever it’s worth today).

On this page, the author explains how in 2002 she started to promote her anti-scientology Website through Google Adwords. First she noticed that her ads were generating an awful lot of clicks. Second, after running for a day or two, Google stopped running her ads. Every time the anti-scientology Webmistress tried to launch a new Adwords campaign, Google would block it. After a long conversation between the now-victim of Google and mister “Don’t be Evil”, the Adwords rep concluded:

Thank you for advertising on Google. At this time, we are not running ads for sites that advocate against any individual, group, or organization. […] Google believes strongly in freedom of expression and therefore offers broad access to content across the web without censoring results. At the same time, we reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site, as noted in our advertising terms and conditions. Please note that the decisions we make concerning advertising in no way affect the search results we deliver. We will continue to show search results for sites which advocate against individuals, groups or organizations.

Let me read this out in plain English for you: Google knows that truthaboutscientology.com hurts individuals, which is why Adwords won’t promote it, but the search engine has no problem hurting a person’s image through its search engine: “We will continue to show search results for sites which advocate against individuals, groups or organizations.”

There, you have it! This is why trying to sink Google’s first page of results with positive content will never take the stains away, simply because stains are an integrated part of Google’s favorite content. Once again, in the situation where the name queried belongs to a trustless indivdual, Google’s reputation component is a blessing. However, when Google search results show inaccurate negative content, there is a strong harm being done to the victims: Lives are literally being ruined because of Google’ algorithmic mistakes, or more globally because of Google’s approach to search results, trust and ereputation.

Truth or money?

So what is Google’s leitmotiv for raising the stakes so high on the quality of its ereputation algorithm? I like the idea that Google wants to crack the truth open into the wild, but I don’t see a reliable business model behind it 🙂 Technically, bringing up the negative truth does not generate clicks on sponsored results, unless…

Unless the victims of this algorithmic mess start to throw money into Adwords’ pipes to make positive and more accurate content re-conquer the first results on their names. The truth doesn’t pay the rent, but defamation and blackmailing does. Google’s reputation algorithm works like a Scarlet Letter system. In the Scarlet Letter, one woman was socially banned by her village because she had a child from an unknown man, and that woman was forced to wear the Scarlet Letter on her shirt to remind everyone that it was ok to spit on her. Religious beliefs motivated the members of the village to outcast the single mother. And what do we learn at the end of the story?

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