When Seth Persily saw Nathan Deal’s television ads for the general election in Georgia which attacked his opponent, Karen Handel, for supporting gay youth organizations and domestic partnership benefits, he wasn’t pleased. The result is what is being widely watched by political strategists as a major test of Online Reputation Management.

Nathan Deal is the Republican nominee for governor of Georgia. So Seth the Atlanta lawyer and public relations specialist set out to sabotage Deal’s reputation on the Internet. Now every time Google sees the words “Nathan Deal,” google instant offers up the word “ethics” and serves up unflattering results. Seth claims the new “Google Instant” feature, which shows search results before you even hit enter, makes his technique even more effective. this technique takes time but is low cost for anyone doing it themselves which opens up doors to activists with a lot of time on their hands.

Persily is a gay father of two who sits on the board of directors of YouthPride of Atlanta, an organization providing a social venue for gay and lesbian teens and working towards the prevention of teen suicide. On August 5th, Deal launched a TV spot alleging that former secretary of state Karen Handel had, at one time, supported domestic partnership benefits for gay couples and pointed out Handel’s support for funding directed to YouthPride. Deal condemned YouthPride as “a group that promotes homosexuality among teenagers as young as 13.”

Enter Political Blackhatting!

Seth Persily is the executive vice president of Penn Multimedia, an Atlanta firm specialising in reputation management on the Internet. So what he normally does for clients is buries bad news or reviews under a mountain of more flattering information so that anything potentially damaging is delegated to lowly rankings in Google search engine results and will not get much attention.

“We flood the Internet with positive results so that video or bad review or that column is no longer in the top 10 [search] results,” Persily says “Well over 90 percent of people will never go to the second page of Google. If you can control what’s on that first page of Google, it doesn’t really matter what people are saying about you anywhere else — because no one will ever see it.”

So now he is angry and has the power to influence Google search results.

“I’ve never tried to harm someone’s reputation. This is a first for us,” he said. “We’ve always been in the business of cleaning people’s reputations up.”

It is difficult to have a big effect on the hyperlinked search results you get after punching the words “Nathan Deal” into Google. So Seth decided to try a different tactic.

You have probably noticed that Google will automatically suggests a number of additional words to the ones you type in. Now whenever anyone types in “Nathan Deal” into Google the first suggested word is “ethics.” Second is “vs. Karen Handel.” And third is “bio.” The first of Google’s suggestions are now page after page of articles about an investigation conducted by the Office of Congressional Ethics into allegations that, as a congressman, Deal pressured state officials to protect a private salvage business in which he was a partner.

Persily admits to making sure that “ethics” stays No. 1. He along with helpers have posted tons of articles, tons of times, in tons of places, that include the words “ethics” and “Nathan Deal.” That’s it! It doesn’t matter what the articles are about or if they get read or not, they just have to include the keyword “ethics” and “Nathan Deal.” Then what they do is type “Nathan Deal ethics” time and time again into Google from many disparate locations rather than a single source. The company is looking for additional volunteers to help with the campaign. Volunteers can contact the company directly at info(at)pennmultimedia(dot)com.

The Deal campaign have come up with a counter attack by saturating the Internet with positive articles. Brian Robinson, spokesman for the Deal campaign says:
“As the front runner, we have to expect liberals to attack us. And they have to expect to be attacked in return”

So there you have it, perfect blackhat SEO techniques that are all the more effective using Google Instant.

A Note from Seth!

After writing the above article, I was contacted by Seth Persily from Penn Multimedia. Below are his comments, which I felt approporiate to append to this article:
“Heather, as always, I very much enjoyed your article. I would, however, ask you to rethink your labeling of our tactics as “blackhat.” Yes, we have been flooding the Internet with information regarding Nathan Deal’s ethics. And yes, our sole purpose in doing this is to influence the search engine results. However, I would add that we are not using spam techniques at all – all of our articles are high quality (we have never used any computer-generated spam articles) and the information we are disseminating is completely legitimate. For the most part, our articles are highlighting official reports from the U.S. House of Representatives and the Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington which did considerable research into Nathan Deal as Congressman and found a number of alarming ethical things he was doing.

The second thing our Stop Nathan Deal campaign has been doing is creating a number of micro-sites about Nathan Deal and optimizing them as best as possible. You can see an example of one of our sites at http://www.nathandealethics.com. As with the articles we are disseminating, the sites are well-written, well-designed, and to the extent that we can get as many of these sites into the top of the search engines as possible, I see that as a completely legitimate SEO technique.

Anyway, Heather like I said I enjoyed your post, and you bring up a number of good issues to think about, chief among them the question of using online reputation management and SEO techniques to attack someone’s ethics or reputation. I have to admit that gone awry, the prospect of being able to attack people online is a scary thought. That being said, Nathan Deal is a public citizen running for Governor of our State. He has been questioned by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the Citizens for Responsibility for Ethics in Washington for questionable business dealings he was involved in, and I think that is perfectly fair game to bring to the public view. Not to mention, Nathan Deal has been viciously attacking and scapegoating the gay community here for his own political gain (as if domestic partnership benefits are the root of Georgia’s problems). We decided we had to fight back, and we’ve received some very positive feedback (as well as some negative). If you like you can read more about our SEO campaign, as well as see our call for volunteers, at the Stop Nathan Deal website. Thank you :)”