MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And it's time now for ALL TECH CONSIDERED.
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SIEGEL: If you run a business, the Internet can be a goldmine or a graveyard. One bad user review or one disgruntled customer with a blog can drive away business for weeks and destroy your brand online. That's because it's very hard to make negative articles and sites about your company go away.
But there is one option. For a price, they can be buried four or five pages deep into a Google search, where most people will never bother to look.
From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd reports.
PETER O'DOWD: Businesswoman Fionn Downhill had an image problem. Earlier this year, an angry customer launched an attack campaign on the Internet, posting a blog that accused Downhill of stealing the client's money. If you typed the company's name, Elixir Interactive into Google, that blog was at top of the search list.
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O'DOWD: Right there it says, clear as day, do not do business with this company.
Ms. FIONN DOWNHILL (CEO, Elixir Interactive): Yes, yes, yes.
O'DOWD: In capital letters.
Ms. DOWNHILL: The person who did this knows what they're doing because they knew exactly how to make this present in this very damaging way.
O'DOWD: That's why Downhill believes the attack came from a competitor. Elixir Interactive is a search optimization company, which means people are willing to pay her up to half a million dollars to boost their profile on search engines such like Google or Bing. A part of that is also suppressing negative content.
In her case, Downhill created a barrage of new websites promoting positive content about her business. That pushed the offending blog to the third page of a Google search.
Ms. DOWNHILL: If it wasn't for who we are, our reputation would have been destroyed.
O'DOWD: According to the digital media research firm eMarketer, search optimization is a $2 billion industry, and that includes search suppression. Prominent public companies like BP and Toyota spend fortunes to keep negative press about oil spills or faulty brakes far away from the first page of a Google search.
Mr. JON KAUFMAN (Senior Vice President, Zog Media): It is an absolute game changer, and it is a fundamental piece of a marketing program for any company out there.
O'DOWD: Jon Kaufman is a senior VP at the search optimizer Zog Media. He says this industry is about who controls the message.
Mr. KAUFMAN: Here's an example. Right now, all I typed in was Ben Quayle.
O'DOWD: Ben Quayle is running for Congress in Arizona. Kaufman types Quayle's name into Google and it's impossible to miss negative postings about the candidate's racy contributions to an adult website called Dirty Scottsdale. Kaufman says voters will notice this.
Mr. KAUFMAN: Individuals who may not have already made their minds, they're going to be seriously swayed by what they see here.
O'DOWD: A few weeks ago, the dirt on Quayle was actually higher in the search results than his campaign website. And that is a case of brand management failure, according to search experts.
Quayle's communications director, Jay Heiler, says the way they've contained the controversy is to be truthful about it.
Mr. JAY HEILER (Communication Director, Ben Quayle Campaign): The story is out there. People who are attentive about it are going to see that it doesn't amount to much no matter how often it pops up.
O'DOWD: But Jon Kaufman says Quayle's team could do more. Create new Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels and other cheerful digital assets. And all that stuff about the dirty would be long gone, buried in the virtual basement of the Internet.
Mr. KAUFMAN: One out of every million people is searching in the fifth page of search results. And nobody is going to see the bad stuff about this candidate.
O'DOWD: This is where search suppression gets a little sticky. Free speech on the Internet increasingly comes down to who's able to pay for it, and which company is willing to manipulate the listings. Search optimization companies are often approached by obviously fraudulent businesses, and it's the search companies themselves that have the power to decide what should be hidden, and what should be upfront and public.
Mr. KAUFMAN: I'm not going to suppress Bernie Madoff's information, certainly not. Is a piece of information about nominee Ben Quayle writing for a magazine something that really should play a part in the voters' minds? Who am I to say? But I don't find that it crosses that line.
O'DOWD: Ed Magedson says the line is crossed whenever anyone messes with the free flow of information.
Mr. ED MAGEDSON (Founder, Ripoff Report): People don't realize they are making a deal with the devil.
O'DOWD: Magedson is the founder of a consumer website called the Ripoff Report. It's a mecca for information that businesses don't want you to see. Each day, about 800 consumers add to a boiling stew of uncensored complaints against car mechanics, grumpy airlines and, yes, even search optimization companies. Magedson says those companies sell a promise they can't deliver.
Mr. MAGEDSON: Suppressing information on the Internet does nobody any good, because it's always going to be found at a later date. It's still going to be there.
O'DOWD: Critics of the Ripoff Report say Magedson actually fuels suppression efforts because he refuses to take down false complaints on his site.
Meanwhile, Google doesn't seem to have a problem with the whole game. As the world's largest search engine, a spokesman there says creating new content to hide negative material is fair play.
For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.
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