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The picture that stormed the internet all started back in 2011 when University of California Davis (UC Davis) campus police officer Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed students protesting on campus.  The students were simply protesting the recent approval by UC Davis leadership to increase their pay while at the same time laying off professors and increasing student tuition.  But once that picture hits the news it seemed to spread across social media, news outlets and impend itself into branded keyword searches across search engines internet-wide.  That’s where University Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi steps in and made the mistake that so many business leaders before her have made; “buying your branded SERP results.”

You Can’t Undo The Internet

Sure there’s plenty of online public relation firms that promise all sorts of internet controlling tactics under the guise of “reputation management” but the truth is you can’t “buy” your search engine result page.  There is nothing you can do to “undo” the negative press your brand has received and there is no way you can manipulate the SERPs to your liking.  I can already hear the cries of anger and pitchforks coming after me… “But wait a minute I thought that’s what Search Engine Optimization is!”  Well the answer is both “Yes” and “No.”

Do Something Big & Promote It

Yes, you can make great content, and help Google read that content to help promote  you rankings on the SERP.  No, you can’t just spend money and scrub all instances of an event off the internet, and that’s where the failings of Chancellor Katehi mistakes begin.  Recent reports are surfacing that UC Davis has spent $175,000 on trying to remove all instances of the pepper-spraying event from 2011.  The reports say that they reached out to multiple SEO agencies and online reputation management firms to begin an “aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor.”

We tell people that come to us for reputation management that there is no guarantee of anything.  In fact, the best thing to do to remove the spotlight from negative online content is to do something good that is as equally big as the negative item to be removed, and then build lots of content to showcase that equally big and good thing.  Then you want to promote the content piece like crazy, and get as many people talking about it as possible.  The worst tactic is to try and pretend that negative event didn’t happen, and sweep it under the rug.  When things like this recent report gets released, it completely undoes everything that’s been worked on so far.

Face Reality Online

This whole event really points to the fact that Chancellor Katehi wasn’t facing reality.  I mean if you Google “UC Davis” the top spot and first thing Google tries to do is autofill the words “pepper spray” after the keyword thanks to Google’s “predictive search” algorithm.  The only way to get into Google’s top spot for predictive search is to have the data to back it up with thousands if not millions of visitors all typing in the same search keyword; “UC Davis Pepper Spray.”  Not only that but when you type in the words “UC Davis Pepper Spray” you get over 310,000 search results.

When an event reaches that magnitude there is no permanently deleting technique that will help you save your reputation.  The only thing that will help is if YOU save your reputation, by having your school, business, brand do something as equally big, but from the position of positivity.  SEO isn’t going to turn the tide of negativity on levels needed to cover up a story as big as the UC Davis Pepper Spray incident, and  it’s a bit wishy-washy to think that’s the case.  But if you’re consistently making great content that is engaging for the visitor and make it easier for Google to index,  you might be able to knock it down a couple of notches, but if it sounds too good to be true…then it probably is.