can you delete things online? (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/memibeltrame/)

can you delete things online? (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/memibeltrame/)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a featured series that tackles the basics of reputation management. In our Reputation Management 101 series, you’ll learn about basic (but important) concepts, tasks, and tips for reputation management. Each post will include actionable advice and realistic ideas that you can use — today — to improve your online reputation. Join us as we explore reputation management resources that everyone should know!

You’ve found something you don’t like about yourself or your company on Google. You want it gone, preferably by yesterday. Can you delete it? Probably not. Sorry.

When dealing with reputation management issues, many people and businesses are looking for a delete button. With this delete button, you’d be able to simply remove bad reviews, negative articles, embarrassing photos, mug shots, and anything else online that tarnishes your reputation. Sounds great, right? Too bad it doesn’t exist.

While a magic delete button would certainly make it easier to clean up your online reputation, there is no such thing. It’s typically not possible to simply delete an unflattering entry online — not even if you pay to do it. And Google just isn’t going to help, even if it’s clear that the page is completely wrong and unjust.

But while you can’t make most things online just disappear, there are steps you can take to practically remove them. And though it is not necessarily easy or common, there are rare instances when you can have unflattering entries removed by taking the right steps.

Why You Can’t Just Delete Pages to Improve Your Reputation

The Internet doesn’t have many rules about what can be posted and where. Except for situations such as child porn or libel, you can say pretty much whatever you want and get away with it. And most online entities, Google in particular, do not want to take sides in a fight about your reputation.

In most cases, you can’t simply contact Google to let them know a person is crazy, posting terrible things about you online, and ask them to remove these claims about you that are obviously untrue and unfair. That’s just not their policy, and you can’t count on Google to take your side except under special circumstances such as serious abuse involving financial information, copyright theft, or explicit images shared without your consent.

Of course, there are websites that offer review of information that’s posted, such as Yelp, which allows businesses to challenge the validity of reviews. Social media websites, forums, and other communities may have abuse policies as well. Overall, though, there’s not much stopping anyone from writing negative articles or social media posts about you.

But the ability to say what you want on the Internet works both ways: other people can share negative entries about you online, but you can share positive ones, too. Share enough positive entries, and you may not even see the negative ones anymore. We’ll expand more on that later.

When It’s Possible to Delete Things Online

There’s no easy delete button for the Internet, but there are situations where you can have items removed online. Or in some cases, effectively removed, as Google and other search engines de-index the pages. It is possible to delete things online under the following circumstances:

  • You own the account or web page: If you have an embarrassing post on your blog or website, you can certainly delete it. If you were hacked, you can work to get control back and update your website. The same is true for social media and other accounts you own. You can delete embarrassing photos, unflattering posts, and other content that might damage your reputation. Easy.
  • It’s spam: Google hates spam, and they will fight it for you. However, it’s important to keep in mind that spam falls under specific parameters, and doesn’t just apply to a page you don’t like. If you think a site that is unflattering to you is also genuinely spam, you can report it to Google.
  • Special circumstances under Google policy: Google policy allows for removal from the search engine under certain special circumstances. There are very specific criteria, but Google’s policies allow for removal under abusive situations (that might also harm your reputation) such as revenge porn, theft of content such as photos or text, or even pages that share your financial information. Content can be removed if it involves child sexual abuse imagery, or if the request to remove it is part of a valid legal request, such as a copyright notification. That means if a web page has stolen photos, text, or other copyrighted property from you, you may be able to have that page removed from search engines. Google will also remove sensitive personal information such as social security numbers or sexually explicit images that were uploaded or shared without your consent. If this applies, you should absolutely get Google on your side.
  • The right to be forgotten: This is a relatively new option in reputation management, and while it doesn’t apply to most people, it is possible to successfully use this legal request. The right to be forgotten applies under a European Union law — and only applies to European Union citizens. Under this law, individuals can request that Google and other search engines remove information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive. Links are removed for entries such as unauthorized photos of a woman sunbathing topless, or old petty shoplifting case files. If this right applies to you, it’s a good idea to make a request.
  • California Internet eraser law: While the right to be forgotten is currently only applicable to European Union citizens, there is a strong legal remedy for United States citizens that would like to have content removed from the Internet: the California Internet Eraser law. This law applies to users 18 and under and requires that websites make it easy for them to remove posts, videos, and photos permanently.
  • Paid delete options: On some websites, such as mug shot websites, you can pay to delete your image or profile. It’s usually a hefty fee, and unfortunately, it doesn’t stop other websites from sharing the photo again, possibly encouraging you to pay even more to delete the photo from a new website. This is generally a bad idea, as it’s best to simply not engage with these websites. Some, however, do offer innocent removal services if you’re able to show them that you were not convicted, or if you’ve turned things around. This type of removal is very rare, but worth a shot if you’re willing to do the work of making the request — and open to being told a flat no or encouraged to pay hundreds for removal instead. Note that there are some laws, such as those in Georgia and Oregon, that allow mug shot subjects to file lawsuits against the websites if their photos aren’t removed upon request.
  • It’s online defamation and you sue to remove it: If the website in question falls under libel, you can sue to have it removed, and even receive damages. Of course, it has to be true defamation, which means it’s published, false, injurious, and unprivileged. In most cases, the most important distinction is that the information is false. You can’t always sue to have a web page removed, particularly if the information you’re seeking to delete is true.
  • You ask nicely: It’s often a long shot, but applied correctly, this angle can work. You can approach friends who have posted unflattering photos and ask them to remove them. If you’ve put embarrassing legal troubles behind you, you can make a request to a blog or newspaper that they take down the article about you from five years ago. In this case, it helps to show that you’ve turned things around, as it may make them more sympathetic to your desire to move on. This applies in other situations as well. Just remember that it’s best to ask nicely, making requests and not demands, as websites are typically under no obligation to comply with your desires.

Burying, the Alternative to Deleting

It is usually not possible to have a page deleted from the Internet, except under the specific circumstances we outlined. That means for your run of the mill bad review, scathing blog post, or negative news story, it’s simply not going anywhere. That may be hard to hear, but it’s the truth.

Here’s news you may be excited to hear: users typically only click on the first five search results, with those top positions getting more than 75% of clicks. Further, 75% of Internet users won’t go past the first page of search engine results. That means if you’re able to push a negative entry down past the first few results, or even better, to the second or third page (or lower) of Google, it may not be deleted, but hardly anyone’s going to see it anyway.

The secret to burying these negative entries isn’t really a secret at all: you simply need to take steps to build your positive reputation. That means building out your website, registering and getting active on social profiles, working on growing your exposure professionally, and adding better photos of yourself, among other steps. Anything you can do to build a positive reputation and fill up those precious first spots on Google will help you fight down those negative entries that you’d like to see dead and buried.

There are even more steps you can take to fight fake reviews and respond to negative reviews that may ultimately include deletion of the review.

Nothing is Ever Truly Deleted Online

While it is possible to delete content online, whether it is actually removed, taken out of search engine results, or simply buried so far down no one will notice it, you should know that nothing is ever really gone once it’s been online.

The Internet moves at a lightning fast pace, and usually moves on from old information quickly, but it’s also slow to forget. Search engines will cache old webpages, and the Wayback Machine will archive them, too. There are also many archiving services for social media websites, particularly Twitter. The bottom line: once it exists online, it’s never really going away for good. But if you work hard to build up a more positive reputation, no one may notice it.

In situations where Google removes pages from search results, note this is simply a Google removal. The page will still exist on the Internet, and it can be found by visiting the page directly, or even by looking for it on other search engines. Of course, you can take steps to remove the page on other search engines as well, but ultimately, a search engine removal is not the same as completely removing a page from the Internet.

Still, if you have successfully deleted an item online, you can rest assured that most people won’t be determined to dig deep enough to find the negative entries you’ve gotten rid of. All you have to do is build your positive reputation enough to wipe negative entries down so far that most people won’t be bothered to notice them.