On the Internet, you can hire someone to ensure nobody knows you're a dog

"Reputation management" does not excuse black hat SEO tactics.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an article about reputation management that I found surprisingly disturbing. Nick Bilton’s reporting of this social trend was excellent. People are coming face to face with their pasts in unwanted ways: pictures of ex-spouses upsetting new relationships, stupid things you did in your youth, abuse from trolls, etc. It’s a familiar story to anyone who’s used the web since its early days. We used to say “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (following the famous New Yorker cartoon), but it’s more correct to say that the Internet is like the proverbial elephant that never forgets. And, more often than not, it knows exactly what kind of a dog you are.

That’s old news. We live with it, and the discomfort it causes. What concerns me isn’t the problem of damaged reputations, or of reputation management, but of the techniques reputation consultancies are using to undo the damage. What Bilton describes is essentially search engine optimization (SEO), applied to the reputation problem. The tricks used range from the legitimate to distasteful. I don’t mind creating websites to propagate “good” images rather than bad ones, but creating lots of “dummy” sites that link to your approved content as a way of gaining PageRank is certainly “black hat” SEO. Not the worst black hat SEO, but certainly something I’m uncomfortable with. And I’m fairly confident that much more serious SEO abuses are taking place in the back room, all in the service of “reputation management.”

On Twitter, one of my followers (@mglauber) made the comment “Right to be forgotten?” I agree, there’s a “Right to Be Forgotten.” And there’s a “Right to Outlive Stupid Stuff You Did in the Past.” But the solution is not defacing the public record with black hat SEO tricks. For one thing, that’s only a cosmetic solution. Someone really out to get dirt will have no trouble finding it. More important, I really dislike the casual acceptance of black hat tricks just because they’re deployed in a cause to which most of us are sympathetic.

I have always been suspicious of technical solutions to human problems. In this case, using black hat SEO for reputation management isn’t even a good technical solution, much less an ethical human solution. The real solution is doing something that humans are much better at than computers: forgetting. Your new significant other doesn’t like Facebook pictures of you and your previous spouse? He or she needs to get over it. That’s how life is lived now. A potential employer is nervous about dumb stuff you did in high school? Get over it. (And if you’re in high school or college, think a bit before you post.) It’s true that the Internet never forgets, but that is hardly a new problem. We forget how well people have remembered in the past, before they had cyberspace to help them. There are always old wedding pictures in family albums and newspapers, and pranks recalled by old roommates who are more willing to talk than they should be. The Internet hasn’t invented the skeleton in the closet, it’s only made it easier to take the skeleton out. That doesn’t mean that humans can’t be mature.

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  • Jim Stogdill

    Hey Mike, “Get over it” strike me as the words of someone who has either 1) never done anything mind numbingly stupid or 2) is old enough to have done most of his mind numbingly stupid stuff before the Internet (or perhaps 3) has faith that his kids will never do anything mind numbingly police-blotter-worthy stupid). If all three of those things are true I envy you!

    I wake up every day and thank God that most of the really truly stupid stuff that I’ve done and said in my life was pre-1995.

    A friend of mine was a dedicated, smart, and hard working Naval officer who had served his country well for over 20 years when suddenly, in a moment of chance hard to fathom, he found himself the captain of a US Submarine that had just collided with another US ship off a hostile coastline.

    I’m sure he isn’t doing any blackhat SEO, in fact I doubt he’s done any reputation management at all. He’s a stoic stiff upper lip kind of guy. But imagine how disconcerting it is for him to know that for rest of his life that story is ALWAYS going to be the first ten search results returned from Google when his name is the search term. Every single potential employer for the rest of his life will see that story first.

    If it happened 20 years ago that story would have slowly decayed into dusty microfilm somewhere, retrievable but not readily accessible.

    Personally, I’d like to see a whole hell of a lot more bit rot in Google’s algorithms.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/mikel Mike Loukides

    I don’t have any idea of how you institutionalize bitrot, though. And as I said, it’s not like this is a new problem. I might go back and soften the language a bit, but my “get over it” applies more to the abusers of information (the employer who won’t hire you because of something you did when you were 17) than to the victims of the abuse. Yes, that information is there (and has always been there); we need to be mature enough to realize that it is unimportant.

    Recently, I heard a story on NPR about a War of 1812 hero–he won a naval battle on the Great Lakes that probably kept the US from becoming a province of Canada. He had accidentally managed to sink his previous two commands. History isn’t a new problem.

  • http://Deanford.com Dean

    I recently was poked on Facebook by a long lost classmate:: “Is this the same person that I went to highschool prom with?” My response “I am, and I’m grateful that I’m not ashamed nor embarrased to admit it!” fits better to the moral issue that you shouldn’t do something stupid in the first place that you would want to forget about at a later time. Smarten up people!

  • http://www.twitter.com/datd00disit DatD00d

    I am not surprised that people want to erase their past on the web and employing techniques to either hide what they did or bury what they did in the past on the web.

    I welcome it.

  • stsk

    Shallow, facile, lame. You call SEO for reputation management “black hat” (you can’t be serious – this is, at worst, light gray hat), but have absolutely nothing to contribute as a real solution to a real problem. You advocate “forgetting” and “getting over it”, but the people for whom you advocate this behavior are individuals (boss, girlfriend) over whose behavior you have no control.

    The implication of an even shallower comment which follows it is that there is some common ground for “acceptable”, or “admirable” or “ethical” or “stupid”. There is none. Everything is contextual. i.e. There’s nothing bad or embarrassing or stupid about Facebook posting a picture and story about your “Cool Attic Hangout”… unless it’s Amsterdam in 1942 and you’re Anne Frank.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/mikel Mike Loukides

    Thanks for the response

    What makes SEO “black hat” (vs gray or white) are the techniques used, not the ends accomplished. Creating multiple dummy sites with positive content and linking between them to create fake link juice, isn’t ethical, no matter who is doing it, or why. Ends don’t justify means. And yes, there are much worse black hat techniques, and all of them are in use. (And I’m sure they weren’t discussed with the reporter.)

    But beyond that, as I said, it’s ineffective. Someone who is good at searching is going to find dirt, no matter how deeply it’s been buried by your SEO. And those SEO techniques will only work until Google decides its a problem and tweaks their page rank algorithm a bit; we just saw that with the whole “content farm” business.

    Are their good solutions? This is a human problem, not a technical one. I do not think we will find good technical solutions. If you have a girlfriend who’s upset because there are pictures online of you with your ex, you should perhaps consider whether you can live with that kind of jealousy. If a potential employer is upset about dumb stuff you did ten or twenty years ago, that’s his prerogative, but maybe you should think about whether you want that kind of boss. Google didn’t invent the past, they just made it easier to find stuff. It’s naive to think that these problems are a creation of the Internet.

    We’re currently going through a rocky phase where people are reacting (badly) to how easy it is to find things online. In a few years, employers will realize that they can’t hire anyone if they rule out people who did stupid stuff in college, lovers will realize that everyone has a past (and there are pictures to prove it), and get used to the situation. I’m sure the bosses of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s knew that their college hires weren’t pure as the driven snow. That kind of recalibration is the only solution to this problem–not black or grey-hat SEO techniques that let you pretend your past never happened.

  • stsk

    Mike, thanks for your post. I don’t disagree that SEO is not the best way to take care of the problem, but I’d rather see SEO used this way than commercially. It’s both a “human” and technical problem, not just one or the other. The bottom line is that there needs to be serious attention paid to the issue. I think your Erik Schmidtesque “just get over it” approach is not effective or realistic. Will people “get used to it” and recalibrate? Maybe – eventually. But there are people, even posting here, who think that it’s possible to “just not do anything you regret” – people for whom capacity for judging others outstrips their self-awareness. While these problems are, strictly speaking, not the creation of the internet, it’s naive to not recognize that the internet introduces qualitative as well as quantitative changes in the nature of personal information. The evolution of attitude change will not keep up with those without conscious action.