SEO isn’t manipulation, though it can be used to repair or damage someone’s online reputation. And that can even turn into legal battles. You’re about to learn how all this works from an ORM expert (ORM stands for Online Reputation Management).
Chris Silver Smith is the CEO and founder of Argent Media, a search marketing agency with extensive experience in SEO, social media PPC, and reputation management. Chris has consulted for clients that range from the Fortune 500 to public figures. Chris is also a frequent expert witness in legal cases involving major brands such as Google, GoDaddy, the Academy Awards, Starbucks, Adidas, and Versace.
In this episode, Chris and I discussed ChatGPT, click-through rate as a ranking factor, whether Google’s autocomplete suggestions can be influenced by the nuances of ORM and some fascinating legal cases involving online reputation. Chris is super smart and you’re guaranteed to learn something useful. So enjoy!
In This Episode
- [01:21] – Stephan welcomes Chris to the show and acknowledges their long-standing friendship and professional history.
- [06:29] – Chris reflects on his writing career and mentions his past contributions to blogs such as Search Engine Land and Natural Search Blog.
- [11:00] – Chris and Stephan discuss the current state of SEO amid changes brought about by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
- [18:15] – Chris discusses his experience using Bing’s AI interface with ChatGPT and highlights its usefulness for generating programming code and other content.
- [23:55] – Chris talks about his observation on the influence of click-through rate as a ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm.
- [32:48] – What is Chris’ approach to content pruning? He shares his preferences for improving the quality and engagement of existing pages.
- [36:48] – Chris recalls his experimentation with influencing autocomplete suggestions on Google, engaging in “gray hat” tactics.
- [46:32] – Chris describes his experience with online reputation management and how it is more fulfilling to help people who are victims of unfair treatment in Google search results.
Chris, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Thanks, Stephan, it’s great to be here.
First of all, I want to share a little bit of background that isn’t part of your bio we’ve known each other for many years, since the 2000s, 2005 or something like that.
I believe that’s about right.
You were heading up the SEO at superpages.com, a Verizon company. Superpages became a client of my SEO firm, and we got to know each other, we got to work together, and I came on-site to your location in the Dallas area. We also became friends, and at some point, you gave me the heads up that you would be leaving Superpages, and I’m like, “Really, I’ve got an opportunity for you.”
“I don’t ever poach clients but if somebody’s for sure out of the door, their hat’s in their hand, and they’re heading out, I’m like, “woah, woah, woah.” And so you came in and worked at Netconcepts.” That was an amazing experience having you on the agency side and working alongside you. Just doing some amazing stuff for different clients. I just want to acknowledge you and our friendship, the expertise that you have, the huge history in this industry and your desire to make a difference and help companies and people. The area of expertise that you’re so good at is that you can reveal light and do good in the world with that. I just want to start the conversation with that.
Thank you. Working at your company was a great experience for me. To be exposed to creativity. It was a cool outfit, and the people there were all visionary, and I’m friends with many of them, still today. It was fun. You don’t appreciate things at the moment as much as you should. That’s the case with my time at Netconcepts, and I didn’t realize just how fantastic it was until, well, later. I mean, I knew it was great. We were doing some cool things. We did some amazing SEO stuff for gigantic companies all over brands that people still use today.
Progressive, visionary, and kind leadership is a breath of fresh air.
On top of that, the leadership there was all very progressive, visionary, and kind to people. That was a breath of fresh air for me. It was after coming out of a deep mega-corporation that had been around for eons, that’s quite a difference. Those were heady days back then, too, because I think SMX was taking off as a conference series. We went and spoke at the SMX Advanced conference, the first one. I think they were trying to make it edgy and attract people. They made it a kind of black hat a little bit too. That was just crazy.
Everything that happened back then was so dramatic in the conference arena, and SEO was just a new little thing, it seemed.
Yeah. Those were quite the days, and I remember speaking at SMX Advanced and causing quite a roll with some of the Google engineers because I was talking about link building and how you can be quite clever with it. It wasn’t a black hat. I didn’t think I wore a black hat, but I ruffled some feathers. I remember Maile Ohye coming to me at some point at the conference saying, “We were going to bring you on board to teach some content, be our instructor on SEO for some videos and things.” That’s not happening anymore.
What was funny was I tried to tell them. They spoke to me about it too. I tried to tell them that you’re not doing some of those things, you were just talking about theories of things that could be effective. It was crossovers between social engineering and search marketing and stuff that—I think it blew the minds of a lot of the Googlers themselves. I think they just didn’t know how to react to it.
Whatever. If it were meant to be, it would’ve happened. It wasn’t meant to be, so it didn’t happen. I didn’t get to be a Google poster boy.
But my life is still pretty darn rich. I didn’t need that added to my resume. That was quite a wild ride, and then you started taking over some of my writing columns. How long did you write for Practical Ecommerce?
I wrote a little bit.
It was at Search Engine Land.
I’ve written at Search Engine Land already. It was the blog that you had invited me to write on before I left the company, and that blog is what changed my career, probably, more than anything else.Rather than having thin content spread out among many pages, it's better to focus ranking values on a single page. Click To Tweet
Which blog was that? The CNET one?
Natural Search Blog.
Yeah, naturalsearchblog.com. I don’t maintain that anymore. I haven’t written anything on there for years.
It’s an old dusty property, but it’s still out there.
Yeah, but it had quite the thought leadership back in the day.
I very egotistically pointed to it every so often to say, “Look, I predicted this.” I don’t think anyone cares anyway.
That’s funny. Well, you are very cutting edge, and you’re futuristic. That’s a term I learned—it’s one of the 62 different traits in StrengthsFinder. The reason I know that is that I tested with StrengthsFinder and found out that was one of my top five traits, futuristic, it does come in handy to see where things are heading.
Well, I like to think that that was partly intentional. Way back in college, even though I was getting a degree in design, I was also training myself as a strategist. I try to read everything on strategy. I’ve read Machiavelli and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. I’ve read everything that the Harvard Business School recommended as strategy books. They even recommended Alice In Wonderland because people should be prepared to deal with crazy stuff that doesn’t make sense.
Yeah, rabbit holes.
Exactly. But in college, one of my best friends was interested in artificial intelligence, and he taught me some of its components. One of the things that AI researchers back then were interested in was the game Go. It’s an ancient Asian game of strategy that has many times orders of magnitude more complex than chess. I learned to play Go. I’m not going to say that I’m a great player, but I’ve tried to play for years and years.
There are still kids in Japan that I’ll play with online, and they’ll beat me, it’s a fascinating game, though, and some of the things that you have to do in it are to look ahead about 30, 40, 50 steps to try to figure out where things are going and how you want to drive your strategy. Maybe that applies today as well, or maybe I was just very lucky because I went to work for one of the oldest phone companies. It was one of the pieces of Ma Bell way back in the day.
They had entrenched thinking, and they had been around for 100 years. The HR person that had hired me had said this is a stable career path. We’ve been around. Our stock has been going up for 120 years, and it’s just going to keep going because people will always need the Yellow Pages. I worked for the Yellow Pages, the online Yellow Pages division. I was right at the spot where I could see the disruption happening and the change happening and could look a few steps down the line and see that that was not going to last very long. Sure enough, that hundred-year-old business model is just pretty well demolished.
It’s funny to think 20 years ago, when we were using Yellow Pages or White Pages and relying on newspapers so much more than we do today, what a different world we live in. Streaming, the amount of content people consume online, video-type content versus sitting in front of the TV consuming regular cable TV is a different world.
Where do you think things are heading in terms of the next few years with regard to AI? ChatGPT is all news, everywhere for everybody, is SEO going to completely change your opinion in the next little while because of this?
SEO is in the midst of change.
You get the sense that you’re definitely at one of those tipping points that Malcolm Gladwell talks about. I believe we are, even the founders of Google think so. They scrambled in a red alert to deal with the strategic threat ChatGPT poses to Google. I think we are in a moment of change, and it’s at that moment when you’re in the midst of a massive sea change that it’s very hard to predict exactly where it will go. You can see a very rough outline, maybe.
But there’s a handful of different ways it could go, and SEO is in the midst of change. The cool thing about SEO is that we’re well-positioned to be in that change if we pay attention to it. People have, for years and years, predicted the demise of SEO. I could argue that, to some extent, we have seen much of that happen. Because years ago, when I wrote on your blog, I talked about how usability or user experience would eventually eclipse SEO. To a large degree, that has happened to where you have to improve user experience, and you have to improve the quality of content on your websites to be effective and relevant.
In addition, Google has introduced so many little elements of artificial intelligence and machine learning that even the Googlers themselves don’t know in every instance what all the ranking factors have been used to rank a particular keyword or the weighting, I should say. They don’t know the exact weighting or what’s the most important, or what combinations of things are most important because the ranking algorithms are now changed for every topic and keyword.
To a large degree, it is very hard to define one or two clever tricks to change rankings. You can still fix some technical issues. That will be around for a while, but the old style of SEO has changed considerably. Now with ChatGPT and Bard and any of the other up-and-rising AI models that are coming along, we will see big changes as they mulch together those AI and conversational elements and creative development into search and with search. SEOs are in the prime position to take the lead on some of that because if you look at the new jobs coming out.
When any new AI model comes along, we will see big changes as they mesh AI, conversational features, and creative development into search.
A prompt engineer, I think, is one of the new and emerging types of positions and who could do that better than someone that understands search very intimately and understands the importance of keywords and the construction of queries? SEOs are in prime positions to be prompt engineers. Even beyond that, you’re now going to be looking at how to optimize for those types of AI dynamics. A long time ago, I intended to write an article on how you might optimize for AI and that involves things like psychology. One of the big areas of development for AI has been language because they’ve figured that that is such a key piece of intelligence.
If they could build machines around understanding speech and delivering it, then they’ve got a major building piece of real artificial intelligence. They have accomplished an aspect of that. Not all the way there, but they have accomplished a major aspect. That will mulch it in with search to the point where it will go back to what Silverstein at Google predicted years ago. The future of search was going to be search pets that could answer whatever your questions were and give you the answer that you’re looking for at any given moment. We essentially are right there at that moment.
Yeah. Have you ever read the book, The Diamond Age? The subtitle is A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. I love the book. It’s by Neal Stephenson. It’s based on what life will be like when we hit molecular nanotechnology, where we can have tiny machines making more tiny machines at the molecular level, so they’re self-replicating. What the protagonist in the book had was a best friend that was an intelligent book, essentially.
Exactly. Yes, I’ve read it. I’ve read it multiple times. It was very impressive. I mean, not only some of the social concepts he had in the book, which I found fascinating but particularly that AI book that was distributable to many kids. The protagonist we have of them is this young girl, but they also were distributing it by the end of the book to many hundreds or thousands of young Chinese girls. To train them and give them a future. It was just a fascinating concept. Visionary.
I love the concept of you being in a movie as one of the actors. It’s like choosing your adventure book that depends on what you do in your role in the movie. Then the actors on the other side respond to that.
It is intriguing. I think we’re there where a lot of the younger generation, and I try not to sound old and crusty, but the younger generation is learning from their devices and not from books. There are positive and negative things about that. I’ve had fantastic conversations with my teenage son, who’s non-college, about many different topics he’s learned through his device. That’s a great thing, and it’s been educational for lots and lots of people. The downside is also that there is hubris involved with many kids that they can watch a video and learn how to do something in five minutes.
That’s not always the case. It works for some things, and I use it that way too. I want to find some new technique in the kitchen or figure out how to fix an appliance at home so I can do that quickly. For some stuff, there are layers of complexity and experience that have to go into it too. It’s a major paradigm shift.
What do you think of Microsoft’s deal with ChatGPT, and is there an important reason for our listener or viewer to sign up with the Bing AI and use that versus ChatGPT directly? Help tease this apart for our listeners.
It depends partly on your imagination or needs but is entirely useful. I used Bing’s interface for ChatGPT and quickly elicited programming code that was usable and correct. That’s a thing that novice programmers can’t necessarily do on their own.
Anyone that has done any amount of programming has run up against things that they don’t know how to do and are not sure about or new techniques. They’ll look those up online. This speeds it up to a large degree. It can essentially write programming code. I’ve had friends that do very advanced computing, bioinformatics, and such that have gone to it and requested a small subroutine to do ABC. It’ll spit it out fast, then they check over it, and they’re like, “I had to make a slight tweak, and it worked perfectly.”
Other people have reported this, too, “Oh, I wanted to create a plugin for my WordPress blog, and it did it.” Maybe those aren’t super, super sophisticated. There are limits to how much content it can spit out right now. We’re right at the first stage of this.Language is significant in AI development, as it is deemed a critical component of intelligence. Click To Tweet
Depending on what you do, it could be highly useful. If you go, “Oh my gosh, I can’t come up with something. Give me a menu for my guests the Saturday evening, and I’ve got people that want these kinds of diet restrictions or like this kind of stuff, or I want this theme,” it would spit you out a menu, or it can spit out a recipe that would work for whatever you want, whatever kind of limitation. Whereas you might find a recipe to do what you’re looking for, you might find when you could adapt yourself, or you might find something eventually after minutes or an hour of searching that would give you what you want.
When it comes up with answers, it’s coming up with stuff fairly good. You can’t always trust it. You need to be careful, educated, and interpret what you’re being given. But it’s pretty good.
People say, “Oh, kids are using it to cheat in school, it’s writing their papers for them,” et cetera. I think about that because I write legal briefs and expert witness reports. It takes me days. It can take days, depending on how many issues there are. I have to do careful, diligent research and back up everything inside it and everything. I’m going, “Okay, am I going to try this? Am I going to try using AI to write an expert report?”
It might speed things up. Then I go through and check every single fact. Maybe that’s my component after that, and I ensure it’s worded the way I would word things. It’s a very interesting tool in connection with humans. It’s going to extend human ability.
Do you think this was one of the reasons why EEAT (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness)—the additional E was added? If you ask an AI to write, whether it’s a legal brief, a treatise, or some manual on anything, basket weaving, fly fishing, or whatever, it will say it with such confidence as if it’s the world expert on it. There’s no waffling there, and it’s just the fact.
It’s very convincing.
Yeah. There’s no experience there. It’s never fly fishing.
The best example of this just happened today. A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on the biggest mystery in Google, which is, does click-through rate affect rankings? I carefully researched that.
I had my prejudices, what I thought, and what I’d gathered from research for years. I came to it, but I carefully researched everything Google had said about it for years. Different Google spokespersons, different papers they’ve written, different blog posts, different social media posts, put it all together in one giant, whopping article.
There is some complexity with it. There are some spots where they use some click-through rate and things related to similar stuff, and part of the criteria for rankings. Some bits of it are used here. But by and large, it’s not necessarily used overall for big ranking determinations.
Today, Pedro Dias posted on Twitter that he had asked Bard whether Google uses CTR, Google’s AI experiment here. It came up with a very convincing, solid answer that, yes, Google uses click-through rate for rankings. It described that it’s very important, yes, people click through, this is a great signal, et cetera. Now Google’s in the unfortunate position of they’re going to have to debunk Google, essentially.
That’s funny. Your position, based on all your research and testing, is that it’s not a ranking factor?
It does affect recency. In recent news, et cetera, there’s an effect. Google acknowledges that they use it in those instances. There are some other cases where I have seen it influential. I think it can pop up in autocomplete pretty frequently. There are some little edge cases and stuff where it is highly influential.
I have seen some instances where I’ve worked on reputation stuff, where it seemed like I isolated out all other factors, and click-through rate was a more likely explanation for a negative item ranking in the search results. There could be some indirect effects that are caused by click-throughs and things like that.
I remain open to evidence, and I remain open to theories of how it’s working.
Dwell time is one of those things people talk about too, which I don’t think is used. It’s currently not used, but there are some cases where it could be influential. I wrote about that in the article that I wrote. I remain open to evidence, and I remain open to theories of how it’s working. Since different people at Google have said a few different things over time, there is some reason to look at it with a little skepticism here and there.
Isn’t it to the point where Google engineers don’t even know what all the ranking factors are because so much is controlled by AI these days?
That’s exactly right. I wrote about that a few years ago in an article at Search Engine Land called How reputation became a major ranking factor in SEO, but it wasn’t about reputation as much. That’s one component, but it was more about the machine learning models used.
I connected two dots, essentially one of their patents and another development area. It was very clear that they’re using this, if not something like it, because it’s a classic method for machine learning. It’s just almost exactly a textbook description of machine learning converted into that patent for creating models for ranking based on types of pages and users’ inputs as to how good those models are.
That could incorporate their quality raters and inputs in ranking pages. They take those ranking values and put them into the model along with what types of pages and topics, and content. It could recreate millions of different ranking models, which then any page with a topic or relevancy on a particular keyword or subject matter could be applied. It creates thousands of models that each have different weightings for the ranking factors and may incorporate different ranking factors too.
Menus could be an aspect of restaurants’ websites, and they are, versus an auto repair site, a hotel website, or an article and information website. With these millions or thousands of models that are used, how can a Google engineer explain what’s causing the rankings for a particular search result when they would have to know the inner workings of what is an abstracted model that’s been applied to all of those different types of pages? It becomes an incredibly crazy request to say that they can tell exactly why something ranks versus something else. They don’t know what’s in those ranking models. There are thousands of them, and they’re abstracted.
The only way to know is to run tests.
And A/B split test SEO experiments.
Very true, and then you still run into some issues depending on how you’re doing your test. You have a whole giant landscape of changing variables that are time sensitive and random because you potentially have hundreds or dozens of other web pages ranking for the same thing. They’re all changing things on their sites. Google is picking up, getting signals on those, or processing signals at different times on all those diverse pieces of information and then trying to isolate things that are very influential.
By and large, if you do a big enough test with enough samples, you start to get some really interesting information. It’s still great that we know much about most of the inputs. People aren’t aware of some of the inputs in many cases. It’s amusing in spots in the knowledge graph how there are these very esoteric databases of classifications that are used as part of their knowledge graph modeling.
You don’t realize that maybe you should go out and add yourself to all sorts of things, like card catalogs, classifiers, and meta-information websites, to influence what shows up in the knowledge graph. It’s becoming quite a beast for search engine optimization experts to get their heads around. It’s very easy to devolve into thinking that correlation equals causation.
Right. There are so many details to keep track of, just the example of Google and its knowledge graph. You must know that Google started its knowledge graph on Freebase and used that as the starting point. There’s no way that you could add anything to Freebase. That thing is locked up and frozen in time, but that’s a foundational component of the knowledge graph.
You could go into Wikidata and add content there, and that would potentially get picked up by the knowledge graph, but it’s not a for-sure thing. You also have to deal with things like notability, conflict of interest, and so forth. There are many rules around what you can add to Wikidata, just like you have to abide by the rules for Wikipedia when you’re adding content there.
There are a lot of nuances. I had a client come to me a couple of years back. I’ll go ahead and say it’s a numismatics author. He’s a noted expert on the values of coins. He came because he had his books disappear from his knowledge graph, which just killed him.
He wanted to get those back. I said, “Okay, I’ll look at it.” It’s not usually the thing that I deal with, but I took a look at it. There had been some changes, and some of his author pages were his prime pages. That was a little bit of it, but it helped to try to get things fixed better on his Wikipedia page in Wikidata. But then, in all these different library catalogs, there’s a number of them throughout Europe.
There are quite a number of library system information catalogs that I coordinated together with the Wikidata page, and that helped reestablish all of his books in his knowledge graph. It made things even better there. We were even able to influence the description text that shows up there. To do that, you referenced a conflict of interest. My group has long maintained a number of accounts in Wikipedia in order to be able to influence Wikipedia.
We do a lot of community work in Wikipedia to maintain those accounts. We’ll go through and fix misspellings, grammar mistakes, and fact mistakes, add citations, and add pictures across the board. I ended up helping optimize a number of figures in the numismatics world, which is its little kingdom. That was quite an interesting little diversion for me for a little while.
It’s fun. You mentioned earlier how dwell time, which you don’t believe, is currently used in the algorithm and the rankings algorithm for Google. How do you know that? Have you done any kind of tests?
I have not tested that one. I’m relying on third-party research and statements from Google on that one. That’s one that I have not taken the time to research. For some of the types of clients that I’m typically dealing with, it’s not a huge concern, necessarily. I have clients where I’ll have a number of pages, thousands of pages on their website, and we’ll talk about trying to make those pages useful and engaging, try to make some improvements in that regard, and then let the rest take care of itself.
Are you a proponent of content pruning, removing from the site, or at least from getting indexed, old pages, obsolete pages, that are stub articles that the client doesn’t have time to fill out?
I am. In part, some of our colleagues in the industry have worked on sites that have gone a long way into very thin content optimization stuff. Let’s do a question and answer on every single page. I haven’t had to work on many sites like that, but I have done a lot of technical SEO on messy websites, so they’ll have a lot of duplicate content, et cetera. Simply removing that is a major optimization that improves rankings across the board.
I have also seen a number of discrete cases where you can have a more complicated, robust article page that can answer questions and show up in the enhanced listings on Google featured listings for a few different queries just for one page. That tells me it would be better to focus ranking values on a single page a little more than having thin content spread out amongst many pages.
It’s better to focus all your efforts more heavily on fewer pieces of content.
I had a potential client come to me last week. He wants some SEO work. I did just a little due diligence and found many micro sites, many of which are ranking well. I hate seeing that because that goes against what my advice would normally be.
I think it’s a niche industry site, so it doesn’t have as much competition. If it had more competition, the site might not do very well. But in most cases, thinner content is not so great. It’s better to focus all your efforts more heavily on fewer pieces of content.
It’s funny. I was speaking to a friend this week who I haven’t spoken to in quite a while. He told me he bought a whole bunch of domains in his topic space full of keywords, like exact match domains, three-word phrases, and that sort of thing.
He’s going to use this as an SEO strategy. I told him, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. I don’t think that’s going to yield any value for you. Then he told me later in an email, “Oh, and I’m going to canonicalize all those to my main site.” You realize now that all those microsites will not even get indexed.
Yes. It’s undoing the optimization you think you’re doing by telling Google that these are all related and don’t pay attention to these lesser websites.
Oh, well. He’s going to do what he’s going to do.
Why does that strategy keep coming back over and over and over and over again?
I don’t know. It’s funny. Anyway, here’s a question I have about something that you usually don’t think of as being optimizable, and I’d love to hear your take on this. Can the autocomplete suggestions be influenced?
You would call me out on the carpet and have me publicly make a statement. Dang. This is so funny. I did write an article about autocomplete a few years back. I don’t think I fully disclosed it, which I will disclose openly on yours. I did do a little bit of, let’s say, gray hat experimentation with autocomplete years and years ago. It was probably a decade-plus ago.
Back then, it was so much easier because they had no safeguards in place. I created a widget that people could add to their MySpace pages. That’s how old this is. If they added it to those pages, it would do whatever they wanted on their home pages. It added a little functionality but simultaneously had a tiny iframe, maybe a one-pixel iframe that searched Google. I could direct thousands of searches with specific queries. By doing that, it increases the number of queries for particular initial words.Online Reputation Management is a fascinating, fulfilling service for people who need help managing their online presence and reputation. Click To Tweet
I was using an insurance company, which was not a client whatsoever. I could introduce queries where their name would have the color red, white, and blue added to the end of it. That was very easy to do back then.
A number of people very hamfistedly, much worse than that, influenced Google to autocomplete and got attention for it. As a result, Google added a number of safeguards in place for this so that it’s much more difficult to do an artificial influence of those types of things.
I do know some people. I had worked with some people on reputation management campaigns, where they used microtasks workers spread out across a region to conduct directed searches, which can make a difference. The trouble is, if there’s a dynamic at play that would cause whatever query you want to bury to be researched upon later, then you’re going to have to do this type of strategy and pay microtasks workers and volumes to conduct searches for a long time until people forget to google whatever it is you don’t like them googling. It is possible to influence it.
Some other strategies are less blackhat. I worked with a client who was fantastic at radio advertising. They would tell people, “Go and google this, and you’ll find our website and do stuff.” He could direct people through his radio advertising to go and conduct structured queries, which works beautifully. I don’t think that’s precisely blackhat. That might be a little gray.
He was doing it unintentionally, but it worked very nicely. One should be very careful. When one works on a reputation management case, the Streisand effect can come into play. If you fight something hard enough, then it’s going to make people curious about it. It may make headlines, and people will conduct more searches and maybe reinforce queries that you don’t like.
Can you define this Barbra Streisand effect for those listeners who aren’t familiar with it?
The Streisand effect is named after an event, where I believe Barbra Streisand had a wedding or an event in her house, and then paparazzi helicopters came in, took lots of photos and things, and posted aerial photos of her property online. She felt it was an invasion of privacy. I believe she sued some people, then people posted about her suing, and then that got a lot of people interested.
The images spread further, and more headlines drew much more attention. It would have all probably just faded away if nothing had been done. The Streisand effect is by the act of trying to suppress something, you get more attention to it, reinforce that, and cause more often reputation damage.
Prior to the lawsuit that Barbra filed, that image of her mansion had been downloaded only six times. Afterward, it was downloaded 420,000 times just in the following month.
A Streisand effect occurs when you suppress something, it gets more attention, reinforces itself, and results in reputational damage.
I laugh because it’s a funny situation. I sympathize with her not wanting that scrutiny, but it is an interesting dynamic. It’s hard to handle if you’re working on something with headlines.
I’ve worked on stuff that has been seen in headlines for a number of years now. You’re extremely sensitive to it. People that have reputation issues going on often develop an extreme level of sensitivity. They’re afraid to go outside if they’ve got a severe problem. They don’t like to be seen on the street. They limit what they do a lot. It can be a devastating thing to people.
Some of us used to online marketing would develop a little callus to some stuff if directed towards us. But for folks not accustomed to that, I’ve had clients that have taken years to recover from things like that. I have one particularly clever client who has diligently removed every last crumb of things connecting him. He’s almost got it all gone.
He had me resurrect a website that was gone because of the potential for people to find it in the Internet archive. I had to resurrect it as the company that operated it, then persuade the internet archive to remove it for copyright reasons and remove every last bit of it. That was pretty difficult to do.
That’s like a script for a movie or something.
Some of these things I’ve worked on would make great Hollywood movies. I wish I could tell the story on many of these things, but it would cause the Streisand effect to happen to some degree or more scrutiny. In that particular case, he came back to me again, hired me again because they had an old company that had bad headlines, and then people were associated with it.
He didn’t do anything bad. It was the company that he was in that did some bad things. It made everybody associated with the company look bad, but he had nothing to do with them. He came to me, trying to remove some of their Instagram posts, but the company was no longer active. The website is gone.
They deleted different pieces of media. They’ve tried repeatedly to use the email and password to get into the Instagram account and couldn’t. I realized the email was frozen within Meta’s servers because the email had bounced at some point. Even though they kept sending password recovery requests, it was going nowhere. They weren’t receiving them.SEO is a field where one must be cautious about boasting. Being at the top means there's only one way to go: downward. Click To Tweet
I had to go in, reset the password, and reinstitute a page for the company on Facebook in order to log in, get them to break the freezing of that email address within Meta’s servers, and then we were able to get the password recovery for the Instagram account and delete everything out of it. Ridiculously, our team took steps to go through, but they had tried everything to get it. They couldn’t log in, even though they had the password and the email.
Wow. Has the CIA tried to recruit you?
Not so far.
They might after this episode airs.
I had one client who had lost their Twitter account some years back. I shouldn’t tell this story properly, but they needed to recover their Twitter account. Back then, Twitter still will if you had the right things, but then, Twitter would tell you what email address was associated with the account.
I could tell from context what the beginning part of the email address was. I figured out by the number of letters that it was a Yandex account. As it turned out, at least when I did this, Yandex didn’t have good security with those email addresses. It asked us a test question, what was your favorite car model? Make and model.
There are not a lot of US combinations of makes and models for cars. I could just carefully do a slight brute-force query into that email address until I could break the password. It’s only ethical hacking, but we could hack the email address, get into their account, and reinvigorate their Twitter account.
That’s hilarious. Do we have a few minutes to regale our listeners with some of your online reputation management success stories?
Yeah, I could talk a little bit about that. Online Reputation Management was fascinating to me because it’s more fulfilling. I feel something for people who have problems and can’t find any way to get help. I feel motivated to try to help folks. It’s much more fulfilling.
In what situation, our listener may think, “Oh, well, these are people who have done bad things, maybe they spent time in prison, and they got called out by the media, or their rap sheet is online,” or something? Do the crime, you do time, but you’ve got repercussions afterward. That’s just the nature of doing the crime. But you’re talking about people who are victims of crimes unfairly treated in the Google search results. Give us a few examples of it.
I have such a range. Upfront, I’m not a paid gun. I don’t take on everything. I just have a huge conflict of interest if I’m helping somebody whitewash themselves, that will go on to hurt other people. There are many things I decline, generally, mafia, icky pyramid level, multi-level marketing schemes, and cults. These are things that have come to me.
Russian oligarch, in one case, would have paid well. That one would have paid well, but I just could not. Since the Ukraine war started, I’m so glad that I didn’t take that one on. I’ve done well, partly because I’ve avoided a lot. I’ve dodged a lot of bullets that way, too.
I’ve gotten called up and threatened by some very icky people, too, so I tried to keep a fairly low profile about where I’m located. Some of the engaging cases are very pedestrian. I like to tell people, if your kid is in college, they get arrested, and the charges are dropped, or they have deferred adjudication, where it’s a minor thing, they’ve addressed what the court wanted, and later the court drops the charges, they can still get vilified by the search results because if they try to get a job later—and they’ve not been convicted. They’ve not been found guilty by a jury of their peers or anything like that—they, later on, will have trouble getting the job.
For many people, it’s also dating, having relationships in the neighborhood, and stuff like that. People will not let you be the coach of the soccer team. They don’t want their kids to play with your kids. All of these things happen. All of that can be pretty devastating.
I’m not a paid gun for online reputation management. My conflict of interest arises if I assist someone in whitewashing themselves, hence hurting others.
I have helped quite a lot of people with mugshots and arrest records. That’s an area where Google has helped people too. People don’t necessarily realize that those sites used to rank well. Now it’s hard to see those sites, except in a lot of edge cases. I still work on edge cases.
There are a lot of victims of NXIVM. They call it the Nexium sex cult. You’ve seen some HBO specials about it, maybe, on Netflix or Hulu. I forget where the documentaries are. There were the principles involved that controlled, created that cult, and harm to people. But then there are a lot of employees and people that did not know of any of that going on and have been taken along on the ride. Some of those people have been falsely vilified.
I’ve helped several victims of NXIVM, the Nexium sex cult. I’ve helped some Google engineers, actually, the people that have been accused of things or they’ve been outed in some way by icky organizations trying to make Google look bad. They’ll just sacrifice an employee to do it.
People occasionally will make foolish mistakes. I’ve helped some people accused of crimes that I don’t believe they committed, like the son of a mafia. An old mafia Don went to prison, converted to Christianity, and stopped doing what he did. His son never did any of those things and helped many homeless people. But when you google the father’s name, the son’s information pages would appear in Google. It was a very odd connection of keyword relevancy to pages that didn’t have his father’s name.
I’ve worked on some dramatic cases, too. I helped, as an expert witness, a human trafficking victim, who her abuser extorted, brought into the United States under pretenses, and put into prostitution and stripping. I helped get them justice in court, their day in court and helped her win a $7 million judgment against her abuser. That was a very fulfilling day in court. It’s probably the most fulfilling case I’ve worked on.
I’ve helped a few people that have struggled with online reputation stuff. In one case, a newspaper website’s listings in the search results posted a very salacious headline about a trans person attacking a teenager in a bathroom. My client’s picture appeared with it in the search results. She’s not trans. She didn’t have anything to do with it and never attacked anyone. But because the newspaper website had created profile pages with every image uploaded, she had run for school board in her county.
This newspaper website posted photos by default, and then they changed the UI to add headlines to every page on the website at the bottom. The headline for the sex crime appeared in conjunction with her image, and then Google took that and used it in the search results as the illustration for that listing. It was very, very upsetting for her. It’s funny to have happened, partly because of the construction of that newspaper website and just the dynamics of the internet. That thing can happen a lot.
Then you’ve had clients who were victims of revenge porn, too.
Yes. I’ve had a few revenge porn victims. Thankfully, Google and Bing have become progressive and have said that they will remove any revenge porn images or videos for people without necessitating a court order. That’s been a real blessing to lots and lots of people.
I had one who was a salesperson in a big city, pharmaceutical sales. She made a really good income up until this happened. She went out with a guy, and he tried to extort her into continuing the relationship, but she blew it off because she had never given him any pictures or videos. He had, I think, hacked her laptop to take pictures of her when she wasn’t aware. He posted those online, and he also mailed them to her place of work and her family.
It was devastating to her. It was very fortunate that the local district attorney in that city could investigate it and prove that he had posted all those things. This was before Google took action on porn revenge. The criminal judgment against this guy gave a list of URLs. We were able to take the list then and petitioned Google to remove those.
Later, Google instituted its policy against porn revenge and removed the stuff. This lady has changed her name. She has me maintain pages under her old name in case the guy ever attacks her again online. She changed her name to escape some of that, her address, and everything. It’s nasty.
It’s crazy what happens out there. It’s great that you’re fighting for the victims and the little person.
I help big companies too, one of my oldest clients for ten years. I never imagined I could maintain a client for that long. They have pretty severe client service issues on an ongoing basis that they have to deal with. I’ve helped them for years and years trying to have a better online presence, reduced their credit card chargebacks, and reduced lawsuits by doing that, so they think I’m well worth it.
I’ve taken on some people who have made mistakes you don’t have sympathy for. Not anything too icky, but if somebody makes a mistake, they’re drunk in an airport, they have to fight with their family, it’s all on camera, and they get arrested, I’ve helped them recover from that.
If someone has done something a little icky, they made a mistake, and they claim they won’t do it again, I will take those on sometimes judiciously. I say my fees are part of their punishment at that point. Occasionally, I can help someone that can’t afford it. I can do something at a much cut rate or for free in a few cases. Sometimes the folks that have done something a little bit icky have paid for other people’s recovery.
There were times when you’ve gone up against some really big guns. As an expert witness, for example, there is a big Australian case that you’re now able to talk about. Do you want to share it?
I have gone up against Google twice for reputation victims, essentially. I went up seven, eight years ago in Great Britain on behalf of a client suing Google to compel them to help him with his online reputation. I couldn’t imagine how that was going to go. I was very nervous about it because the Google employee, who was my opposition expert, kept coming back with reports that were not coming close to opposing the report I had given. They couldn’t counter some of what I said because they didn’t want to reveal trade secrets.
They would have to, in some instances, counter some of the things that I showed. They said, “Oh, we technically can’t do this, we can’t technically do that.” I said, “Yes, you can.” Programming-wise, this is easy to do. We do it all the time. By the way, here’s a patent showing you can do this. It’s very hard to counter that kind of argument.
In Great Britain, I was all prepared and very nervous to go on the Queen’s high bench division and testify. I stayed up late studying all the papers in the case, preparing to testify, who knows what they might ask me the next day? I got up early, dressed for court, ate some breakfast, glanced at my email, and the barristers for my clients said Google had elected to settle this case as of midnight. Thank you for your service, you’re welcome to come by our offices, and we’ll tell you what happened. You’re welcome to go to court as we read the settlement agreement to the justice.
I went to their offices, and they were toasting with champagne, invited me to have some, and they were delighted. I figured out at that point that Google tries to avoid disclosing some stuff. They tried to avoid judgments that might set a precedent.
In a recent case, I took that was very similar, a woman had sued Google a couple of times over the years for her online reputation because she had, under Australian law, I believe, if you had petitioned and represented that something was defamatory about you, then they had a duty to remove it. And they failed to remove things for her. They failed a couple of times.
She sued them, and she persuaded me to work on the case. I had some reservations because I like some things about Google. I like a lot of people at Google. I think that the company has done a lot of good for us. We have a lot of information at our fingertips. But at the same time, I read her case and decided that some things needed to be addressed.
Victims often don’t have the technical ability to figure out exactly, perfectly, how to disclose URLs.
I feel that Google has a duty to help people with reputation issues online. They can afford to, they have staff to do it, and I don’t see a reason to resist that. In this case, in Australia, they did not settle it. I will say that Google’s counsel in Australia is perhaps unethical and injudicious and has not advised their client very well.
Some of the issues in the case were identical to what I had addressed in Great Britain. One of the key pieces of the case, they had two different Google engineers provide reports on their side. They said something that was demonstrably not true. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. They said she had not given the proper URLs. Google can be very pedantic about giving the precise URL that’s necessary, that has the defamation on it for them to remove something.
That’s a point of contention with me in them because victims often don’t have the technical ability to figure out exactly, perfectly, how to disclose URLs. She had given them screengrabs of the search results when they had asked her what to remove. Those screengrabs had portions of URLs as they used to show in the search results, and they still do, that is abbreviated because the longer URL might not be appearing.
They were search results listings for a rip-off report, a horrific website that has harmed many people’s reputations. She provided that to them, and they claimed that they could not find it and it was unreasonable for them to be expected to find the URLs to remove them. They said Google processes, contains and makes searchable trillions of URLs, and we can’t find a URL out of trillions and trillions of URLs, and it is just too difficult. That made my head explode because it’s the most powerful search engine on Earth. If they can’t find a URL, who can?
They find URLs all the time, that’s what they do. That’s what they’re built to do. They didn’t have to look through trillions of URLs. I demonstrated to the court that you could do a simple site colon search for rip-off reports and find far fewer URLs to look through. Amongst those, you can add additional search parameters in the URL for the components or her name, and it would give you the two URLs that they were supposed to remove.
That was one of the points in the case. I demonstrated that for the court. I did it in my report, and then I did it in my testimony during the court proceedings. They tried very hard to remove me from the case. They argued that I didn’t know how to do programming, and therefore I couldn’t possibly know how to assess their information properly and neutrally for the court.
I established for the court that I do know how to do programming and that Google’s attorneys could easily tell that I know how to do programming. They could not kick me off the case. It’s fairly normal for legal teams to try to remove experts from the case because it removes a headache quickly. The outcome is my client won her case last month. It was finally decided that Google was indeed on the hook for being responsible for not removing the defamation about her.
Did they make things right, or did they just pay her damages?
That part of it is still to be determined. The damages hearing for cases is often separate. That has yet to be done. I don’t want to comment on that other than say they will probably give her justice under the Australian court system. I think that they have eliminated their wiggle room and their ability to delay and delay and delay in this case. I think that justice is soon to come.
And you are part of that justice. That’s awesome. That’s a big part of your practice now, isn’t it, to be an expert witness?
It is. It is a significant piece of my practice. I do agency work and reputation management, and I’m doing SEO for folks. I do lawsuits. I have gotten to where I enjoyed working as an expert witness. In many cases, I’m going up against or competing with several of my colleagues, some of whom are my friends, who are on the opposite side of a case.
That can be pretty interesting to negotiate as well. I have respect for people. Sometimes we don’t have the same opinions about things. The opposition needs representation as well. To get a fair shake, maybe they need that opposition witness too.
I know there’s at least one big-name person in the search engine world that you went up against and ran circles around him. I’m not going to mention his name.
I could say that there are a couple. SEO is one of those arenas where you better be careful about bragging because if you’re at the top, there’s only one direction you can go down, and that’s down. You can only go. I’d rather not brag too much about some of those things.
What remains hidden from the eye retains more blessings.
There’s a beautiful Jewish wisdom quote, “What remains hidden from the eye retains more blessings.” If you keep it on the deal and you’ve run circles around somebody, or that you’ve had a huge win won a massive case, had a piece of the action, or whatever the thing is, keep that on the down low, it retains more blessings. I believe that.
I think that’s very apropos for the search marketing industry too. If I know which person you’re referencing, they have a very big role where they’re at. Since we competed over that case, they have helped me and helped my clients in other ways when we’ve run into issues where they have been in a position to assist in some way. They have done that. I think that speaks super well of their character, as well.
That’s the thing about SEO and the search marketing industry. People can get too competitive and hurt each other sometimes, but a lot of times, we end up partnering in one way or another. I have trained at least one person who is now an expert witness.
I’ve advised a few different people who have become expert witnesses, and in one instance, I’ve given a lot of information and direction too. They now counter me in some cases. I’ve said, “Look, this is just business. On top of that, we both get paid at the end of the day, so it’s a win.”
Awesome. I’ve referred some folks to you who have contacted me for expert witness cases because I have zero interest in taking that on.
It can get ugly sometimes if you get subpoenaed for documents at Christmas. There have been some of those depositions that I’ve had. I thought that I had gone through maybe the worst one when I got screamed at by some attorneys for Fox News. Of course, the screaming I could take that any day because I’m winning at that point. They have it on video, and they can’t use any part of that testimony that would ruin their credibility with a jury or a judge, so I’m winning if they’re screaming at me.
They try to tear you down in depositions. Depositions go for eight hours. Just about seven and a half hours, they can have you. You must answer virtually everything, even if it can’t be admitted in court. I’ve had people ask a lot of inappropriate things. I’ve had people bring up things that they shouldn’t have had access to bring up even.
It can be devastating sometimes when people try to tear you down, intimidate you, or get you to say what they want.
While I don’t have any big, giant, awful thing in my personal life or anything like that, it can be devastating sometimes when people are trying to tear you down, intimidate you, or get you to say what they want you to say. I couldn’t have done it when I was younger. I guess I’m just too cantankerous now, so it works better.
That’s funny. The world needs people like you to stand up for what’s right and fight for justice. I speak for, I’m sure, a lot of people and say thank you that you’re willing to do that. You take the lumps, the screaming, the probing into your personal life and all that nonsense in order to do a proper job of representing those who need that help.
I know we’re out of time. We’re well past time. Thank you for taking all the extra time to chat about all this online reputation management and the expert witness stuff. This is fascinating. I’m sure our listener who’s got reputation management issues to deal with, needs an expert witness, or some of the other things that we talked about would be interested in learning how to get in touch with you. Where do they find you?
Thank you so much, Chris. It was so fun and intellectually stimulating to chat, SEO, and all that good stuff with you. Thank you for coming to the show.
Thanks, Stephan. Thanks for having me. It’s been great chatting with you again.
All right. Listener, I hope you take some of what you’ve learned, apply it, and make the world a better place. We’ll catch you in the next episode. I’m your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.
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Your Checklist of Actions to Take
Build strategic thinking skills to anticipate future trends, develop innovative solutions, and tackle complex problems. Read strategy books like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
Exemplify a visionary approach in providing myself and my team with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed and to create a more engaged and productive workforce.
Improve website user experience by prioritizing website speed, mobile-friendliness, and ease of navigation to stay ahead of the curve.
Remove duplicate content on my website to prevent search engines from indexing multiple versions of the same page and help my website rank higher.
Educate myself on AI’s limitations and potential pitfalls, and always approach its output critically.
Approach new information and theories with an open mind, but also exercise a healthy degree of skepticism.
Manage my online presence by adding myself to relevant directories, classifiers, and meta-information websites. This can influence what appears in search engine knowledge graphs and improve my online visibility.
Utilize online reputation management tools and services to help manage and monitor my online presence.
Be proactive in building relationships with my customers and addressing their concerns before they become public issues.
Establish a crisis communication plan to prepare for potential reputation threats and respond effectively in a crisis.
About Chris Silver Smith
Chris Silver Smith is CEO of Argent Media, a search marketing agency, and has extensive experience in search engine optimization, social media management, PPC management, and reputation management. As a strategist, he has consulted for a range of clients, including Fortune 500 companies and public figures. Smith is also frequently an expert witness in legal cases involving major brands such as Google, GoDaddy, the Academy Awards, Starbucks, Adidas, and Versace.