The Perils Of Censoring Searches

The NYTimes reported that UC Davis spent upwards of $175,000 to have any negative search results about the university scrubbed from Google.

After a pepper spray incident at a protest, the University of California David 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 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.

Can you really eliminate negative search results?

In a word, no. Eliminating undesirable search results is not possible, said Danny Sullivan, an expert in search engine optimization. 

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.

In essence, the firm's contract should not have stated that it would "eliminate the negative search results," rather, it would bury the results so as not to garner much attention. The uproar over this technique is surprising. Institutions have been doing this type of thing since search engine optimization came in vogue.


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