The highest court in the European Union decided on Tuesday that Google must grant users of its search engine the right to delete links about themselves in certain cases, including links to legal records. In common fashion, the US press spinned the story in the most provocative way with headlines like, ‘Now you can demand your Google past to be erased”, and, “Google will now take down all the negative links about you”. Immediately my phone was ringing and emails were pouring in with requests to do this right away.
The way the ruling is being reported, one would think that now everyone’s search history can be eradicated. But the truth is actually not so clear cut. What does this decision really mean?
As someone who provides online reputation management services for a living, I know first hand how frustrating it can be when old, negative content from 10 years ago still appears on the first page of Google search results, even though the content is no longer relevant or even worse, is flat out wrong or has proven to be untrue. A frivolous lawsuit that went nowhere, an old marriage announcement in the NY Times that ended in divorce 10 years ago, an old DUI record from 20 years ago (and sometimes even worse); these ugly blemishes can still appear prominently Google in search results in some cases even after a professional has been hired to clean it up.
Google’s current content removal policy is pretty straightforward. It clearly states:” If you want to remove information from Google, in most cases you need to contact the webmaster of the page and ask them to delete the content in question.”
In other words, Google is not responsible for the content posted on any active website and it will mirror any content in its search results that it’s ranking algorithm deems relevant to a search inquiry. However, some exceptions do apply. Google will remove sensitive personal information (like Social Security numbers, financial information, medical data, etc.) or “offensive images” (the parameters around this are open to interpretation, but Google will remove these in certain instances based on their policy).
According to this new regulation however, the court decided that there are cases in which companies like Google should grant online users the ability to be “forgotten” after a certain period of time by removing links to web pages “unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public”.
The definition of exactly what type of information would qualify for removal and what Google should do is still unclear – and remains open for interpretation. And this is where the ruling still needs to be more defined in order for it to have any real impact on the general public looking to manage their online reputations.
Some provocative questions are raised by a ruling of this type: If Google should become “obliged to remove links to web pages” even when the original “publication in itself on those pages is lawful,” (according to a summary of the judgment, which now allows a legitmate call to question) what criteria will be used for determining the type of content that can be “forgotten”? For example: will it now become possible for a former sex offender to force Google remove references to his/her criminal record?
Al Verney, a spokesman for Google, said in a recent statement that the decision was “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” and that the company would “take time” to analyze the implications. Because the European Court of Justice is the highest court in the European Union, Google cannot appeal Tuesday’s decision.
Google will now need to come up with a more specific solution, or at least a clear response. As a result of this ruling, the company will no doubt become bombarded with requests from the general public demanding all sorts of link removals – from embarassing prom night photos to old bankruptcy notifications. Sifting through this slog of information could in itself require the creation of a whole new department.
So will this actually happen?
As someone who has been specializing in managing online reputations for brands and individuals for over 10 years, I’ve been observing Google’s technical evolution. Google’s algorithm is a complex formula that takes into consideration many aspects of the content it indexes including the age of the link, domain authority, number of click-throughs and the number of references that link back to the source. As Google applies the same ranking algorithm for digital properties related to vanity searches as it does to other standard information searches, it by design gives preference to older established websites. This means that for searches on an individual’s name, Google will likely display old, outdated and sometimes expired online references related to that person. As a result of these ranking critera, these “results from the grave” will occur as more authoritive and relevant to Google’s robots than newer, fresher and more accurate content. This is why these older items persist in ranking on the first page. A solution may be to allow fresher, more current content to have greater ranking authority than older, existing search results – following a “timeline” or chronological ranking – rather than the current algorithmic parameters that cause this frustration. If Google would allow users to display their most recent information at the top of search results, it would likely solve the problem.
There is an industry joke that has some truth to it – ‘the best place to bury a dead body is the second page of Google search results’. No one goes there, unless they are conducting extensive research or looking for an article or reference that they are already aware of. I get incredibly frustrated when an old article from 2001 still keeps crawling up from the past, outranking the top 10 fresh articles that more accurately reflect my client’s accomplishments or activities, dredging up a past that is no longer relevant. Its not my goal to remove it – I’ll let it live there, on the second page – and simply to allow the newer, fresher content to speak for itself.