Monday, June 28, 2010

The un-Googling of Mick Gzowski

A writer burned by a moment in the political spotlight seeks an online image makeover: Can search results be sanitized?

Mick Gzowski
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
When I Google myself, it hurts.
It used to be that when I ego-surfed my own name, that well of digital knowledge delivered me harmless hyperlinks, mainly connecting me with my famous Canadian father. Ho-hum. About a year ago, that changed dramatically. The Net now paints me as the Peter Gzowski progeny who sank St├ęphane Dion's coalition.
The worst thing is, it's partly true. I am my father's son, and I was Mr. Dion's videographer on the day when his taped statement making the case for overturning the government showed up late and less than sharply focused.
The links that pain me aren't even that bad. Most of them say I was unfairly scapegoated. Still, it smarts to be forever associated with that ignominy, and I also suspect it does my career no favours. So I decided to see if I could change it: Could I un-Google myself?
When I investigated, I found out that “online reputation management” is currently one of the biggest growth areas of the Internet, according to the digital marketing group Econsultancy. Googling the subject delivers pages of competing companies, with ads bannered across the top and down the sides of every page.
I instinctively distrust those sponsored results; clicking them usually leads into a maze of slow-loading graphics and unhelpful information. I called one, via a toll-free number, and spoke with “Carl” in New Jersey (“Joisey”) – he refused to give me his last name, saying that if it were published, his competitors would launch an online attack. “Dirty business,” he said.
After only a few moments' explanation, he said he was sure he could help me, for between $1,500 and $2,000 (U.S.) a month. For life. I passed on his offer, but realized I needed to know more about Google and the term Carl mentioned, Search Engine Optimization.
Swallowing the spiders
This term (SEO) has two meanings: First, to make your website easy for Google and similar search sites to find; second, to seed the Internet with so many nice things about you that the bad things are buried. The catch is that nobody really knows how the mysterious algorithms that Google employs to find things function, and they're continually being updated.
Google doesn't actually search the Web every time you ask a query. It searches its archived index of the Web. That's created by software programs called spiders that visit pages, fetch their content and then continue following all of the links on those pages.
When you ask Google a question, it searches its voluminous index, then modifies the results by asking more than 200 questions like: How many times does this page contain your key words? Do the words appear in the title? In the address? Are there synonyms? Is it a high-quality or low-quality page? And what is this page's PageRank?
PageRank is the key. It's the formula invented by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin that, according to Google, “rates a Web page's importance by looking at how many outside pages point to it and how important those links are.” So the art of un-Googling yourself is really the art of fooling PageRank, a wizard's curtain behind which we mere mortals are forbidden to glimpse. People are making careers guessing.
However, Google officially frowns upon manipulations of its ranking systems. And in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission's consumer-protection branch has required paid endorsers to identify themselves since 1980; last year it ruled that those guidelines also apply to social media. So hiring some American college students to troll the Net saying sweet nothings about you is technically illegal. No such rules are in place in Canada as yet, but the industry here expects them soon.
An alternative approach is to ask anyone who may have posted unsavoury things about you to please take them down. If the statements are libellous and you have a lawyer handy, some Internet service providers may be persuaded to remove them on your behalf. Asking politely is preferable, though in some cases, a blogger, for example, could simply take your request and make another, even more insulting post of it. So I decided against sending a note to, for example, Ezra Levant, the uber-conservative blogger. He might make too much hay of it for my liking.
Besides, while blogs might be flexible, unflattering mentions in mainstream media are virtually impossible to have removed. (“Hi, New York Times? Eliot Spitzer here …”)
So I would take the opposite tack: I'd just tell the world all the good news about me. I sought out professionals to help me with a standard do-it-yourself SEO campaign, for which they would be compensated only by being quoted in The Globe and Mail (and therefore having their online reputations improved).
Denise Brunsdon, director of social media for the public-affairs firm GCI Group, says online reputation management is one of the fastest-growing areas of their business. It seems like whenever she tells people her title these days, she gets asked if she can do another contract.
There are black-hat and white-hat methods, but setting up quickie, flattering sites or blogs and dumping links to them in every imaginable Web cranny won't fool Google for long, especially if you have active haters. This kitchen-sink approach “is tiring and does not win,” Ms. Brunsdon said.
She prefers the “teach a man to fish” approach – showing clients how to do the ongoing work of reputation management themselves: First, decide what elements they like and want to promote; then create profiles on “polished self-advertising sites” such as and Twitter that rank highly in Google results (she has a longer list, but considers it proprietary information).
Tell a consistent story
Jaime Watt, the chair of communications company Navigator Ltd., is certainly considered a good guy in a crisis. He recently steered former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant through the subsequently dropped charges in the death of cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard.
Mr. Watt advised that you can't be phony or contrived, because “people are very good at figuring out who's being honest and authentic and who's selling a load of crap.” He added that it's important to be fighting for something that you know you can defend – the narrative you construct must be consistent.
While Mr. Watt also disavowed underhanded methods, he did advocate creating counter-blogs or websites to “answer every attack, and don't let things go.” In situations much more dire than mine, and for people with the money to afford it, he said, instead of keeping your finger in the proverbial dike, you must send back a flood of your own.
In that spirit, I asked him what effect this article could have on my online reputation – surely skeptics would just see it as another whitewashing effort, setting up a battle I'd be sure to lose. “Not necessarily,” Mr. Watt said. “If you don't want to be infamous for something, you've got to become famous for something else. … Talking about it is not bad, as long as it gets you into something else.”
True, I thought. The words in this article are not coming from the mouth of a politician reading to camera in two official languages, scant moments before the nation decides his and many others' fates. I was a journalist and a filmmaker before I entered the world of politics. I am a journalist and filmmaker now. Writing for the newspaper could help to remind people that I am more than the impossible situation I became associated with.
So I hope, honestly and authentically, that you enjoyed it. And the next time you Google me or anyone else, remember that the fastest-growing business on the Internet is the one trying to skew your search results.
Mick Gzowski is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker.

Original Article 

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