New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt used his Aug. 26 column to struggle with what I consider a nonissue: individuals who are troubled by the fact that a Google search of their name unearths a New York Times story containing incomplete, outdated, or even incorrect news about them.
Hoyt's column didn't cite any real harm done to the aggrieved parties he discussed in his column. The only one who came close to making that claim was consultant Allen Kraus. He"wonders if" the 16-year-old negative and incomplete Times story driven to the top of a Google search of his name by Times "search engine optimization" strategies might be costing him business.
In my Aug. 27 piece about Hoyt's column and the "controversy," I concluded that instead of bitching about moldy Times articles at the top of Web searches of their names, people like Kraus should tweak the Web to produce more accurate results. Start your own home page using the URL www.allenkraus.com, which was—and still is—available, I counseled. Take advantage of Google's algorithms by getting friends to link to your home page.
Software architect Jon Garfunkel, who writes at Civilities.net, did more than give Kraus advice. He started working the Web to push Kraus' existing home page—which I didn't know existed—up the Google ladder. In an Aug. 28 entry, Garfunkel writes that one reason Kraus' home page at IMPLEXhealth was all but invisible to Google was because nobody linked to it. Even Web novices know that getting linked to improves a Web page's Google ranking. Garfunkel suggested that Slate and other Web sites do Kraus a favor by giving "a little link love" to the man's page.
Overnight, Garfunkel's article became the No. 3 result for a Google search of Kraus' name. The next day, Garfunkel writes, Kraus' IMPLEXhealth home page was No. 1. Garfunkel attributes the improved ranking to "link love" and his suggestion that Kraus insert his name in the <title> section of his home page (search engines rely on <title> info).
Garfunkel cites the wisdom of Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, who writes that before a page can do well on Google, it must get both quality links from important sites and very descriptive links—"Links using the terms you want to rank for in the anchor text," Sullivan writes.
Since the intervention, Kraus' page has bounced around, dropping as low at No. 28 in a Google search, according to Garfunkel. As I write this column, the Kraus home page is the No. 3 entry in Google, an IMPLEXhealth page that contains his name is No. 4, and Garfunkel's article is No. 5. My Slate article is No. 14.
The NYTimes.com still delivers the top two results when Kraus' name is Googled, both internal "Times Topics" pages. The first page lists two articles about Kraus, the one Kraus calls inaccurate, and a follow-up that gives Kraus' side of events. The second lists a 1997 letter to the editor from Kraus followed by the two aforementioned news stories.
Garfunkel's success at remaking Kraus' Google image so quickly with such little effort supports my original view that the alleged problem is de minimis. If you're notable enough to have a Google footprint and you don't like what it looks like, do something about it. Spend at least as much effort improving your Web image as you would correcting colleagues and acquaintances who were talking smack about you behind your back.
"Search-engine optimization is still voodoo to ordinary people," Garfunkel continues. He wants Google and other search engines to provide search-engine orientation for users who want to improve their standings.
As I previously wrote, you may think reputation belongs to you, but it doesn't. It lives inside the heads of other people, and now inside Google. It's their possession. If you want to change it, do something to convince people and the Web that you aren't who they think you are.
The first entry for a Google search of "bad reputation" is the lyrics to "Bad Reputation," the Joan Jett song co-written by Jett. In it, she insists that she doesn't give a damn about her bad reputation and that she's only doing good when she's having fun and doesn't have to please anyone. She cares not if you think she's strange because she's never going to change. This view seems to be informed by her view that the world is in trouble and there's no communication. Let people say what they want to say, she emphasizes, because it never gets better anyway. It's a new generation, she exclaims, before reiterating that she doesn't give a damn about her bad reputation. The odd thing about Jett's rant is that I think she has a pretty good reputation—at least inside my head. Send your Jett assessment to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)