A huge amount.
Google search, curiosity and the experience to spot patterns
Recently, a caller left a name and a phone number on my voicemail, enquiring about online reputation services. As it was out of hours by the time I got the message I did some checking before I called the person back the next day. I thought that I would share this process with you to show you just how much someone like me can find out about someone like you from a single phone number.
It’s not the individual pieces of information that tell me about you, it’s my ability to read all of them put together; the patterns and connections. And because people generally don’t have that ability, they are also blind to the overall picture of themselves that they communicate through their online activity.
I first Googled the name of the woman who left the message but without any contextualising information, this search didn’t show anything that caught my eye. Nothing popped up saying ‘Jane Smith has x, y or z reputation problem’. So I then Googled the phone number.
That immediately brought up a business in the North of England – the kind of business that my experience told me would be quite likely to have a certain amount of unhappy ex-customers. Lets call it ‘City Solicitors’ (although it wasn’t a solicitors as it happens). I then Googled that business name and very quickly found some negative comments about them in several high-profile discussion forums – including ‘MoneySavingExpert.com’. Ouch.
“Okay” I thought. “So I know the business and I know the problem they’ve got so I’ve a fairly good idea why they might need to talk to me” but I wanted to find out some more. I widened my search beyond the first couple of pages of the Google search results to try to find out a little more about this business and its history. Then I noticed something.
Let’s assume that www.citysolicitors.co.uk was the company’s actual website. The thing that caught my eye, down on page 4 or 5 of Google search results was an entry with the URL ‘www.citysolicitors.org.uk’. That was so similar to the company’s own website that I assumed there was some connection (and my experience also flagged up that it was also likely to be a domain registered in an effort to help solve a reputation problem).
I clicked and went there, finding myself on some kind of WordPress blog. This site had the kind of content on it that told me it was a ‘link farm’. This content is typically text that is either generated by computer or cut-and-pasted by an offshore content-creator. It’s purpose is to fill websites that are not intended to be read by people but to fool Google ‘bots’ into thinking it is credible and relevant. I noticed a large vertical text banner that linked directly to www.citysolicitors.co.uk website. That was interesting. It confirmed that whatever this site was, it was in service of the company with the reputation problems whose employee had left a number on my voicemail.
I concluded that the blog was being used as a ‘link farm’ by an online reputation manager, being paid to try to ‘fix’ City Solicitors’ reputation problem.
I quickly discovered many more such sites with domain names that were variants of ‘City Solicitors’ and all of these sites were clearly being used as link farms.
Link text is the clue
The way that Google works is that for a page to benefit from an incoming link (‘link juice’) from another page, the keywords of the destination page have to be in the link text on the other page. SEO consultants and reputation managers typically set up hundreds of blogs full of vaguely relevant content and place, within that content and those pages, links out to other pages that they want to push up the Google search results for any particular key phrase.
Whoever was working on behalf of City Solicitors was linking to other pages – pages owned by someone else – and trying to push them up the search results. The aim, obviously, was to ‘bury the bad comments’ and push them off P1 of Google. This is what most people with reputation problems want and what most, if not all online reputation management ‘specialists’ promise. Except me, that is. I refuse to do it – and for very good reasons.
When a reputation manager sets up link farms he doesn’t expect anyone to read the content on them; in fact, he doesn’t expect anyone to see them at all. They are not designed to attract readers, just to trick Google. This is why, having created these link farms, the reputation manager tends to use them not just for one client, but for as many as possible – and this led to my next interesting discovery.
Steven White and his top 10 unlucky customers
I noticed at the end of each ‘article’ on these link farm sites there were a whole set of keywords. One of them, repeated again and again, article after article, was ‘city solicitors’ with the link URLs pointing to a range of ‘safe’ pages on other peoples’ sites. But there were more and very quickly, I had a list of his top 10 clients. To confirm my suspicions I ran each of his clients’ names through Google and was able to ascertain exactly what reputation problem each had and why.
And that wasn’t all. This reputation manager had decided that he should also benefit from his own link farms and there was his name linked through to his own website. I recognised it from LinkedIn. Let’s call him ‘Steven White’.
Bad online reputation management
To sum up what I’d found from a single phone number (plus the knowledge that the caller was interested in reputation management):
• That City Solicitors had an ongoing reputation problem
• That they had employed Steven White to try to ‘bury’ the bad news
• That Steven had created link farms to try to muscle out the bad pages by boosting a range of good pages up the Google search results
• The identity of Steven’s top 10 clients and their reputation problems
What I was also able to conclude was that Steven’s techniques had not only not fixed his clients’ problems the way that he had no doubt promised he could (and that they had no doubt wanted to believe he could), but they had probably worsened them. Why? Because there’s nothing so suspicious to the browsing prospect than a cover-up.
I also can’t help wondering what his clients would think if they knew that their anonymity was blown as a result of the spammy techniques that Steven White was using on their behalf? The evil side of me was tempted to contact them and ask.
My approach is completely different. I show clients how to ‘own’ the story about them and regain balance so that the person searching can make up their mind about them. My way is credible, empowering and turns bad news into a real opportunity to be seen to learn and put things right – in the same public arena where those things went wrong.
If you’ve got a reputation problem and an ‘expert’ tells you he’s going to push the bad news off the top of Google, then you’re already heading down the wrong road and I can promise you that nothing good will come out of it except that you’ll spend a fortune making yourself look even guiltier and less trustworthy than when you started out.
Think about it. Seriously.