The Barbara Streisand Effect
Every business's SEO nightmare: the top Google hit is negative
Back in July 2011 I dealt with the touchy subject of what to do if you find criticism of your company online (here and here). It's going to happen eventually. BlueCamroo's Social Network Scout can help you find it and head it off at the pass. While BlueCamroo gives you the technical means to find and react to criticism, the "how" is one of finesse and a measured hand.
If you visit my July posts, you'll notice I split the posts into two parts. What to do and what not to do. I'm a big believer that sometimes being successful is more a matter of avoiding the landmines. The last man standing wins by default.
One of my points in my "what not to do" post was be careful in bringing down too heavy a hand, especially in the legal arena. Certainly, if you have good cause to sue (someone is maliciously spreading damaging untruths about you, your company, or your product), exercise that right. But don't try to play Internet lawyer yourself. People will push back. It can become a David vs. Goliath situation. And you're the 8' tall sweaty monster. And then comes the pile on. People with real or imagined grievances will join the chorus. The one fire you were trying to put out will become 10, 20, 100 fires.
Turns out my advice has a name. It's called the Barbara Streisand Effect. Back in 2003, a photographer was documenting coast line erosion. Among his 12,000 photographs was an aerial photo of a stretch of coastline with Streisand's mansion in the background. Streisand sued to get this photo removed, citing privacy considerations. When news got out the singer was slamming a $50 million lawsuit on an environmental project, well, netizens didn't really rally to her side. Her obscure photo suddenly had many, many more eyes on it and its distribution went viral.
More recently, a dentist didn't like a review she got on the Yelp review site and tried to sue the patient. This generated a lot of negative buzz in the Yelp review community. The dentist's Yelp page suddenly got a huge pile of 1 star reviews.
Even science isn't immune. A cancer clinic in Texas came under fire for offering what many oncologist consider an ineffective and needlessly expensive unproven treatment. Science is the ultimate market place of ideas and scientists will subject your experiments and hypotheses to objections that range from nitpicking to flames that would have Kirk vs Picard holy warriors calling for both sides to be reasonable. But that's how science advances. Ideas that survive this crucible get published and get other scientists working on it. The best response to objections is good data. Unfortunately, the Texas clinic hired an Internet reputation management consultant who took it upon himself to play Internet Lawyer and threatened to sue various science bloggers. Ouch. He even went so far as to mail a teenager a photo of his house in a kind of "I know where you live" implied threat.
Scientists are scientists because they've survived many academic flame wars. They pushed back. Which had the result of pushing negative web sites up the SEO chain on Google. "Hmmmm should I spend $250,000 of my own money and the last months of my life? What's Google say? Oh dear..."
Lesson: Be careful about who you outsource your online reputation management to. Make sure the company has responsible track record. It's not some foaming-at-the-mouth kook operating from a laptop in a Starbucks.