U.C. Davis Learns Downside of Trying to Scrub Search Results
In November 2011, after a police officer pepper-sprayed students who were sitting in the quad during a protest, the University of California, Davis, had to contend with an image problem as a video rapidly spread.Though media relations might have been one part of the response, university officials were also concerned with Google relations.
The university paid at least $175,000 to two public relations firms to suppress the negative search results generated by its name, and the name of its chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, according to a report this week by The Sacramento Bee. The news has caused some California lawmakers to call for her resignation.
One of the firms, Nevins & Associates, based in Maryland, said it would “launch an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed,” according to its contract, which was obtained by The Bee through a freedom of information request. Under the contract, signed in January 2013, more than two years after the protest, the university agreed to pay $15,000 per month for six months.
And that raises the question: Does this sort of thing work? In a word, no. Eliminating undesirable search results is not possible, said Danny Sullivan, an expert in search engine optimization. Mr. Sullivan is the founder of Marketing Land and Search Engine Land.
“I want to say it felt laughable,” he said of the contract. “It read like a document written from 1998.”
Dana Topousis, a university spokeswoman, said that the “increased investment in social media and communications strategy has heightened the profile of the university to good effect.”
Instead of zapping unfriendly news articles and commentary from the search results, the goal of such search scrubbing efforts is to create enough new content to push down the negative results to at least the second page of links in Google search results. Most people don’t dig beyond the first page, so having your own positive links bury the negative ones could dull their impact.
“It can be possible that you can make search results more positive for some queries, but it’s not guaranteed,” Mr. Sullivan said.
You can run from Google but you can’t hide