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why it doesn’t matter if an article isn’t true (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/onepointfour/)

“That article isn’t even true!”

This is a statement we hear all too often in online reputation management. You’ve Googled yourself and find an article that is not even close to reality. In fact, it may contain some outright lies. Obviously, this is infuriating. And the bad news is that it’s not an easy situation to deal with. But there are a few things you can do to fight false reputation claims online.

Why That Article Might as Well Be True

So, the article isn’t true. But if it’s published online — or elsewhere — it might as well be. Unfortunately, in online reputation, perception is reality. That means an article doesn’t have to be true to hurt your reputation — it hurts just because it exists.

According to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, appearance trumps fact. We form opinions about others in a fraction of a second, and what we perceive can often outweigh what we know to be the truth.

That means even if an article isn’t true, it can alter anyone’s perception of you to one that reflects what the article says — even if it couldn’t be farther from the truth. And in an online environment, where visitors spend very little time reading before moving on to the next thing, that can be even more damaging. The SPSP study says that the less time we have to make judgments, the more likely we will go with our gut, or perception.

Even Fake Articles Influence First Impressions

First impressions matter, and most people searching online aren’t going to dig deep to investigate whether or not an article is true. They’ll probably take it at face value and accept what’s said in their online assessment.

Visitors make snap decisions online. On websites, it takes less than a second for visitors to form a first opinion of your brand, and only 2.6 seconds to concentrate on reinforcing information.

Just One Bad Article Matters

We know that even one article can damage your online reputation. According to research, 21.9% of customers are turned off from a product or service by a single negative article. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider losing more than 20% of your annual business — just because of one false article online.

Top Ranking False Articles Hurt Even Worse

There’s more bad news: if the article spouting lies about you is among the first few results on Google, it’s getting a lot of attention. Research shows that top ranked search engine results will get the most traffic.

A recent study shows that the top two results for a query on Google will receive more than 50% of the traffic. If a troublesome article is in these top two results, you can be sure that people are seeing it when they search for you. Even an article in the third, fourth, or fifth position on Google search results will be seen by 5% to 10% of searchers.

What You Can Do About Articles That Aren’t True

This is all bad news: false articles can influence your reputation as if they were true, and if they’re well ranked, they are even more damaging. But there is also good news: you can take action against them.

While online articles and your online reputation don’t act like a credit report that you can dispute with an agency, you can question their validity and challenge them. It does take some work, however.

Suing for Online Defamation

One option is suing for online defamation. If an article really isn’t true, and it’s hurting your business, career, or personal life, you might have a case.

Online defamation lawsuits allow you to seek damages against those who have posted false information about you online. You’ll be able to stop the spread of lies, and potentially even collect financial compensation for the trouble they’ve caused. If you can win, it’s likely to result in a big boost for your online reputation — and a huge sigh of relief.

However, there are a number of problems with this approach. First, you’ll be required to show that the statement is false, which you may or may not be able to do. You’ll also have to prove that it is injurious, meaning you’ve had some sort of damage that you can demonstrate.

But the biggest problem you may encounter with an online defamation suit is that it can amplify the situation. What was once a single article with a few untruths 10 search engine results down for your name may become much bigger. That same issue can be catapulted to the top spot on Google and multiplied many times over to fill your entire first page of search engine results and beyond with articles about the lawsuit, court documents, and more.

This is even worse if you’re suing a customer, as the public often sides with consumers who are being sued by businesses. Even if you’re right, the perception is often that businesses — even small ones — are big bullies pushing the legal system on consumers. Even if it’s really the customer that is the bully. It may not be fair, but that is the perception, and it can hurt you.

Online defamation lawsuits should be reserved only for serious situations that are highly damaging and out of control. That means a single false article or bad review probably isn’t worth it, but a concentrated effort to spread lies in multiple locations online could be a worthwhile case for online defamation, and you should speak with a lawyer to discuss your options.

Questioning Validity at the Source

There’s not much you can do to reason with an individual who posts lies on their own blog or social media page. Obviously, they control those properties, and you’re likely to have a hard time facing them down and getting them to remove what they’ve shared. But if the article in question is from an official news outlet or a prominent blog, you should contact them to let them know they have an article that should be revised.

Publishers care about their reputations too, and if they find out that they have published an article that is incorrect, they’re likely to want to fix it. That means if you get in touch and show them that what they have published is wrong, you may be able to have the article removed or revised. It won’t do much to repair the initial damage from others who have seen the article while it was still in its original form, but you can prevent further damage by having it fixed so that it will reflect the truth from here on out.

Remember if you’re taking this approach, you should be cool and calm, sharing the facts in a professional manner. Making demands, being emotional, and blaming the news outlet or blog will not help you, and it will not encourage them to see your side. Simply contact them with a professional request to revise or remove the article, and be sure to send them proof that shows them why they should believe you and fix it.

Positive Online Promotion: A Better Option for Fighting Untruths

As with most online reputation issues, the best way to fight a negative article is to go on about your business and promote the positive rather than focusing on the negative (the false article). This approach is often much better than an online defamation suit, as it does not call attention to the issue you’re hoping to bury, and it protects you from further threats in the future by fortifying your online reputation.

Positive reputation management works because it builds up your online presence, pushing down false or negative articles on search engine results. It won’t get rid of them altogether, but by giving search engines more interesting positive results to show, you’ll push down the false article so far on Google that it’s rarely, if ever, seen.

Remember: the first two results on Google will get more than 50% of the traffic, and visits are almost nonexistant after the first five results. This is a fact that can hurt you if you have a false and hurtful article in those top results, but it can help you if you’re able to push down that same article into the fifth position or lower.

Positive reputation promotion is also a good long term strategy for fighting false articles and online bullies. The steps you take to improve your reputation with positive entries will pay off in the long term, not just in the initial weeks and months when you’re trying to bury an article that’s spreading lies about you. Social media profiles, positive press, and positive articles will show up in search results for years to come, protecting you not just against one bad article you want to bury, but any other false articles that might pop up in the future.

How to Fight False Articles with Positive Online Reputation Management

  • Claim and build online profiles: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yelp, and other major social media and review sites are easy wins for your online reputation. These are popular websites that rank well on search engines. Sign up and get a profile on these and other sites, and they are likely to be among the first results for online searches. Fill out profiles and information completely with professional photos, ask for reviews, and maintain regular updates so they’re fresh and interesting for search engines.
  • Build your own website: If you haven’t done it already, claim a domain name for yourself and build a website — even a basic one — to control top search engine results. Google loves exact match domain names, so if you’re able to register and develop your name as a website, you will most likely claim one of the top search engine results for your name. Be sure to use your website to link to positive results that you want to do better on search engines, such as your social media profiles and any positive press you’re able to earn. Even better: start and maintain a blog with regular posts.
  • Get friendly with press: A false article can hurt, but a true one can help. Get in contact with journalists, bloggers, or others in your network to get some positive press to share online. Consider developing a press release that you can send out to news wires. These can build your online reputation and with promotion, can outrank an article that’s spreading lies.
  • Network and share your knowledge: Become a part of online discussions, writing guest posts, sharing expert quotes, and becoming an authority in your area of expertise. Good resources for this are Help a Reporter Out and Quora, where you can sign up to answer questions as an expert.

How to Protect Yourself from False Articles

The most important way you can protect yourself from false articles in the future is by establishing a positive online reputation with robust profiles, positive reviews, good press, and other positive entries for search engines to share instead of negative ones that may or may not be true.

In addition to supporting a positive online reputation, you should set up alerts so that you’ll know as soon as there is an issue. That way, you can take action to contact the publisher for removal or consider other options. Google Alerts is a good tool for monitoring alerts.

However you take action against a negative article, remember that an article can hurt you even if it’s not true. But with proactive reputation management, you can be protected against false articles and other threats to your good name.