As we continue to build out resources on ReputationManagement.com, people reach out from time to time looking for advice on their own reputation management issues. Unfortunately, well over half of the emails we now receive are from people who are listed on mug shot websites. These types of sites have been around for a couple of years but have really heated up as of late, with presently roughly 100 mug shot distribution sites on the web. To understand how they work, in roughly 15 states, mug shots are posted on their respective county police website each day or week. The mentioned ‘mug shot sites’ then build a script to scrape those fresh mug shots every day and post them on a new page on their sites, which tend to rank well in the engines. However, the exact purpose of these sites tend to elicit quite a bit of debate.

On one hand, if you commit a crime, you should have to pay the consequences. If a person in my neighborhood were arrested for abusing children, I would want to be able to readily find that information online. On the other hand, if you were arrested for driving under the influence nine years ago, should your mug shot be shown on 12 different sites which take up all of the page one results on Google?

One important thing to understand on the ethics of the sites is they do not show people convicted of a crime. Rather, they admit that they simply show mug shots. If I were 100% falsely accused of a crime and was exonerated, the photo would have still been a part of public records and would still be plastered all over the Internet.

Here in Cincinnati, a suit was filed in February in which a man who was guilty of a DUI two years ago found his mug shot on BustedMugShots.com. He was given the option to remove the photo for a simple payment of $119.95. However, after consulting with an attorney, he decided to pursue legal action against the site.

There have been plenty of other suits across the country that are presently going through the legal channels. The word you hear used most often is ‘extortion’. Many feel the mug shot sites are built strictly to get paid by people who just wish to bury their past, and will do so at any price. The legal process is painstakingly slow, so the industry continues to grow as the cases go through the courts.

The first mover in the space, Florida.Arrests.org, now hosts over four million unique mug shot images. The owner of the site, Rob Wiggen, doesn’t take issue with the role his site plays. He sees himself as an entrepreneur, getting free content online and then monetizing it using Google’s Adsense program to promote attorneys, bondsmen, and other services related to people being arrested. He states that the majority of his revenue comes from advertising and not through removal fees.

More often than not, people feel as if they have been backed into a corner and have to pay one of these sites just to remove the photo and be done with it. The issue is that some of these sites are actually networks of mug shot sites, and once they see you are willing to pay one time, the image can get distributed to other sites, which then soon rank high in the engines. This creates a cycle of continuing to make decisions on whether it makes sense to continue to pay these sites to clear your name.

The problem with this new business model is that there is no black and white answer. On one side, if you don’t want your face plastered on the Internet, don’t get arrested. If you are an employer and look up a potential hire to find out he/she was charged with domestic battery, it may make sense to look to the next candidate.

On the flip side, the practice looks an awful lot like extortion. The companies are putting up humiliating photos but then profiting when removing them with payment. You can’t with a straight face say they are trying to perform a service to the community when they are more than happy to remove the photo of a criminal if someone opens their wallet.

So what is the answer? Personally, I would have to agree with a great piece written in Search Engine Journal a couple of months ago. Our best chance, to if not eliminate, then shrink this industry, is with the assistance of Google. There is no question the mug shot sites rank well in Google. You are dealing with terms that have such a small search volume (a name) that there isn’t much competition at all, and these sites are robust and optimized, so of course the pages rank quite well.

That said, Google has always frowned upon duplicate content, and in many cases remove sites that simply scrape content from the original source. In this instance, if the mug shot and descriptions were already listed on the various public county sites, if Google elected to take action against the mug shot sites, they wouldn’t appear in the results. While that sounds easy, Google doesn’t want to get in the business of being a moral compass either. They are out there simply to rank sites. They can, however, decide which sites are able to advertise in their paid AdWords program, and have begun to take action to not allow sites in this industry to advertise.

After the SEJ piece was released, a representative from Google did share their thoughts:

“We share the author’s general concerns with the business model of these sites. We have AdWords and AdSense policies on user safety and sensitive content and regularly take action against sites that violate those policies, as the author notes.<

Google’s search results are a reflection of the content that’s available on the web. With very narrow exceptions, we take down as little as possible from search and have resources available for both users and webmasters to stay informed about content removal policies.

Of course, people looking for employment or going out on a date aren’t happy that they can’t move on from their pasts, but there is an ancillary victim in the new industry as well. The actual practice of online reputation management is being dragged through the mud. Upon performing some research, at the very least, it appears that some ORM firms have close relationships with the mug shot sites, and at worst, they own some of these mug shot sites. To be clear, I am stating that “some” businesses are involved in this, but of course, and understandably, the media wants to paint the industry with a broad brush and thinks every reputation management company is involved in these types of practices. I’ve met plenty of people in this industry who would never engage in such practices and want to build the trust of their clients to not only maintain them as a client, but utilize that client for a referral source down the road because their company provided excellent work.

The web seems to evolve every day, and this practice isn’t great for that evolution. No matter your stance on whether these sites constitute free speech or if they are nothing but extortion, the practice is not only damaging people’s names on the web, but also damaging the Reputation Management industry as a whole.