Ever since the European Union’s top court ruled in May that individuals have a “right to be forgotten,” Google has been working to abide by the new rules. The company has received over 70,000 takedown requests from individuals who want 250,000 webpages removed from Google’s search results. Google’s team individually reviews each application, and the company plans to hire more employees to handle the extra workload. Changing the way people think about the Internet is an overwhelming task.
But Google is not the only company scrambling in the wake of the E.U.'s decision. As Internet users begin requesting that unsavory parts of their pasts or personal contact information be erased from Google’s search results, so-called reputation management companies are seeing a flood of new business. Traditionally confined to creating new web content about their clients—laudatory blog posts, celebratory articles, swooning social media updates—these companies are now trying to help their clients erase content as well. “Online image management has long been in the business of producing new content so you have a better persona online,” says Cayce Myers, a professor at Virginia Tech and legal research editor for the Institute for Public Relations. “Here they’re doing the reverse.”
Online reputation management is a growing business that is now being boosted by the E.U. ruling. For a fee that can amount to thousands of dollars a month, companies take on clients and scrub clean their search results by creating search engine-optimized content that hog up the first few pages of search results on Google. Clients ranging from CEOs, major corporations, celebrities down to doctors and restaurateurs who use the services to whitewash their online presence. Media consultant BIA/Kelsey forecasts that small and medium-size businesses will spend $3.5 billion managing their online reputations in 2014.
Now, the E.U.’s court ruling has changed the dynamics of the industry, expanding these businesses’ client base and making it easier for them to delete content rather than just create it. “The number of our inbound leads”—new referrals—“has gone up about 50 percent since the beginning of May,” says Simon Wadsworth, managing director of the U.K.-based online reputation management firm Igniyte. The E.U. ruling “has raised awareness of the industry. You can change how you do things online.”
Bertrand Girin, the founder of a France-based reputation management company, Reputation VIP, has created a spin-off service that specifically to designed to help people make “right to be forgotten” requests to Google. Aptly named Forget.Me, it lets users choose from one of 40 boilerplate requests in nine separate categories in order to send Google a pre-formulated request. The service, which is free, allows users to bypass some of the thorny legal questions and the difficulty of properly structuring a request. “When Google put its form online, we looked at the demand from the public and we saw a gap,” says Girin. “We said, ‘let’s help people understand what their problem is.’”
Forget.me has 17,000 registered users who have submitted over 2,500 applications to Google. The boilerplate response responses, which were written by lawyers, can be modified by users to address more specific claims. Girin is promoting the service as one that makes it easy for regular people to be forgotten on the internet. Dealing with Google is a “bureaucratic hassle,” says Myers, the legal research editor for the Institute for Public Relations."You can technically do it yourself for free, but navigating the bureaucracy is in a state of flux.”
“I can see where it could be cumbersome," he adds.
The buzz around right to be forgotten has given these companies much-wanted attention. Andy Donaldson, the CEO of the reputation management company Hit Search, has invested heavily in building and marketing a search software that allowed users to monitor their own online personas over multiple platforms. But Donaldson said that since the E.U. ruling, the number of his company’s new client leads has increased by “upwards of three or four hundred.” “We invested in post-graduate doctors in computer science and mathematics to help us build our algorithm,” Donaldson said, “But it ends up being something like this that triggers the market that’s really totally out of our control.”
Donaldson gave an example of how the E.U. ruling has been a boon for business. (He couldn’t disclose the names of his clients.) The CEO of a large U.K.-based company was involved in a dispute during a friendly rugby match with a well-known journalist. The journalist wrote a damning story about the incident, blaming the CEO. The CEO’s wife, having just read about the E.U. ruling, sought out Hit Search to get the story removed from Google’s search results. The request is unlikely to be successful—Google is reticent about removing news stories on public persons—but Donaldson won a client lead.
Google has taken a hard-nosed stance toward many of the requests reputation management firms have made, with the overwhelming number of takedown requests coming back with refusals. Donaldson said he has sent hundreds of requests for his clients to Google; of the requests Google has responded to, under ten percent have been accepted, he says. That’s because Google isn’t likely to take down a search result like a newspaper story about a public figure, for instance, or a negative review about a roofing company.
“People think we’ve got some magic button in Google and we press delete,” says Wadsworth, the CEO of Igniyte. His clients often ask for links to be removed that won’t pass Google’s bar. “We’re telling the majority of people, ‘you’ve got no chance,’” Wadsworth says.
Their success rates aside, the right to be forgotten ruling is going to drive business growth for some time to come. “This is a first step into a general public market. It’s a big market,” said Girin. “I think there’s a real demand here.”