Technology

How Google Search Results Are Being Manipulated By Shady Online Reputation Consultants

New Studio for BuzzFeed News

Last year Adrian Rubin was sentenced to three years in prison and had to forfeit close to $10 million for running a payday loan scam and helping his sons, Blake and Chase, operate an illegal telemarketing business to sell worthless credit cards. His sons also received sentences of roughly three years in prison for their role in the scheme.

All three Rubins, who hail from the Philadelphia area, are now behind bars. But online, their good names have never been better.

Last fall, a woman using the name Dr. Adrian Rubin announced the launch of a new website to share climate change research and offer “a rallying point for those combating pseudo-science and climate change denial.” Rubin described herself as a climatologist with 30 years’ experience who lives in Philadelphia.

Her “about” page uses stock images of two different women, respectively titled “smiling attractive senior businesswoman wearing glasses” and “happy senior female hiker enjoying outdoor activity.”

Around the same time, three other apparently fake Adrian Rubins were making their presence known online via personal websites, guest posts, and social media accounts. Rubin’s sons also saw a similar surge in dubious online personas using their exact names and location.

The Rubin personas issue press releases, conduct interviews published on websites, offer grants and scholarships to high school and college students, and maintain profiles on major social networks. It’s all part of an elaborate digital smokescreen created by at least one online reputation and SEO company hired to scrub the Rubins’ criminal history from the surface of the internet.

Bots, deepfakes, and other forms of media manipulation continue to generate global concern about their ability to erode trust and seed false narratives in society. But coordinated efforts to game search results — the method by which billions of people access information every second of the day — haven’t attracted the same level of scrutiny. This is despite it being an early and powerful form of platform abuse, and the fact that search manipulation campaigns often rely on exploiting Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, and countless other services as part of their strategy.

It’s given rise to a global reputation management industry offering to cover up past arrests, poor customer reviews, allegations of fraud, and other character-killing online content. These campaigns can pollute the online information ecosystem and enable people to hide important details about their lives from potential employers, customers, and romantic partners. Along with adding to the epidemic of fake social media accounts, they also litter legitimate websites with false information.

“It’s a pretty fly-by-night-kind of industry.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation has found examples of executives, doctors, criminals, and even a Russian oligarch all benefiting from search engine manipulation campaigns to suppress negative content. In one example, the search results for Ian Leaf, a famous fraudster from the UK who also goes by Ian Andrews, are being influenced by an Ian Leaf persona that claims to be an expert in fraud prevention. This is a strategy to ensure positive content appears when people search for information about him and his crimes. The dubious Ian Leaf and Ian Andrews personas have also self-published books on Amazon to bolster their credibility and search results.

As for the reputation industry, practitioners who spoke to BuzzFeed News described it as an anything-goes field, lacking clear industry standards or ethical guidelines. The irony is that the reputation industry suffers from its own perception issues.

“It’s a pretty fly-by-night-kind of industry because what does it take to be a reputation management professional? A website,” said Brandon Hopkins, the owner of reputation firms DiamondLinks and AfterHim Media.

Hopkins has been in business more than 10 years. Information gathered by BuzzFeed News connects him to the creation and/or maintenance of the Rubin and Ian Leaf/Andrews personas. Hopkins wouldn’t admit his involvement in specific campaigns during a phone interview and did not respond to several detailed follow-up emails.

Along with criminals and other people looking to suppress negative search results, reputable brands and ad agencies also try to unethically game the system. Last month, outdoor lifestyle brand North Face and its agency, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, boasted about successfully ”hacking” Wikipedia entries in order to replace top Google Image results with product placement shots. North Face later apologized.

Google says it invests heavily in thwarting attempts to game search results in violation of its policies. But reporting by BuzzFeed News shows it’s possible to push search results for names, companies, and other specific terms off the top pages of Google, so long as you’re able to spend money over time to make it happen.

That means the Rubins’ criminal conduct could very well be suppressed from top search results by the time they’re released from prison in 2021. Instead it’s Dr. Adrian Rubin, at your service.

Your reputation is, famously, what other people say about you, not what you say about yourself. Online, it’s largely determined by the results people see when they enter the name of a person or company into a search engine like Google.

While you may carefully curate your own social media profile, your Google footprint can offer an unvarnished look at life, complete with all its blemishes, from bankruptcies to arrests to unintended viral infamy. Yet while it’s impossible to control what people say about you all over the internet, for the right amount of money you can control the message on that all-important first page of Google, thanks to a cottage industry of consultants and flat-out spammers.

The reputation management industry highlights an emerging tension between people’s desire to control personal data and information in the digital world, and the need for platforms to guard against attempts to suppress or remove information just because it’s inconvenient or unflattering.

Andy Beal, a consultant and author of books about SEO and online reputation management, told BuzzFeed News that most reputation projects involve “using search engine optimization to try and push negative pages further down Google (results).”

“If you’re trying to get positive things to show up in Google, those positive things need to be legitimate, be real.”

To make that happen, Beal says he works to create high-quality, positive content about a client that reflects who they are. The goal is to give a client the reputation they’ve rightfully earned, he says.

“Your reputation is a reflection of your character. So if you’re trying to get positive things to show up in Google, those positive things need to be legitimate, be real — they need to be an extension of the great things that you’re doing,” he said.

The approach of producing positive content for a client can also be abused as a way to cover up negative search results for someone in the midst of a reputation crisis. BuzzFeed News previously revealed a network of 10 websites and several fake Twitter accounts that were apparently used to improve the online reputation of Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov after he was arrested in France. The sites and Twitter accounts were used to fill the web and social media with flattering content about him in order to suppress the legal issues.

“In a legitimate reputation clean-up campaign, you focus on rehabilitating a reputation, not just whitewashing the internet with fake, positive content,” Beal previously said of that campaign.

Kerimov’s personal foundation denied having any role in the campaign at the time, and said the billionaire did not own the sites. A court set aside a charge of money laundering against him last year, but the case was reopened by prosecutors in March. Kerimov denies the charges and is fighting them in court.

His example highlights the blurred line between a legitimate reputation campaign and one that crosses into unethical or manipulative territory.

For example, consultants will often use shady shortcuts to improve a client’s search results, such as buying articles or links about clients from so-called link networks. These are networks of websites that are created with the sole purpose of building up domain authority and PageRank, two measures of a website’s search ranking. The operators of these networks then sell a link back from their sites to anyone willing to pay.

“I have a link network and between me and a few associates we probably have 50-plus sites of our own and 500 more in the space we have access to,” one reputation consultant told BuzzFeed News. (He asked not to be named so he could speak freely and not have his sites downranked by Google.)

Savvy players also acquire once-popular domains with high search rankings, and then begin selling links to anyone who wants to be placed on the site. The Frisky, for example, was once a popular site for commentary and reporting from a female perspective. Today the domain is owned by a Serbian music producer/marketer who sells posts for roughly $130. Ads for the site highlighted its high domain authority score to potential customers, though The Frisky was downranked by Google after inquiries from BuzzFeed News.

To protect the integrity of links as a measurement of online credibility, Google forbids “any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.” It has banned agencies for buying links for clients. But there’s still a thriving open market for buying and selling links. You can also find people offering to pay others to click on specific URLs in the hope of elevating a preferred search result and burying inconvenient content. (Google declined an interview request for this story.)

The desire for high-quality backlinks has also led to the rise of the SEO scholarship. For years, reputation consultants have advised clients to offer a scholarship in their name, usually for a relatively small amount such as $500 or $1,000. The goal is to secure a mention of the scholarship, and a coveted link back, from a legitimate college website with an authoritative .edu domain name. In some cases, these scholarships are created with no intention of ever paying out, according to experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

“Some rep management companies will go get the links on as many of the scholarship sites as possible, and then never deliver the goods. They’ll never give out the scholarship,” Nick Cuttonaro, owner of the reputation management firm Link Builders, told BuzzFeed News.

As of today, you can find financial aid sections of US college websites that list awards with names such as “ArtificialGrassRecyclers.com’s College Scholarship” and “YourMesotheliomaLawFirm.com Scholarship.” ArtificialGrassRecyclers.com did not responded to a request for comment. It’s unclear whether its scholarship has been awarded.

A spokesman for Shrader & Associates, the law firm that owns YourMesotheliomaLawFirm.com, told BuzzFeed News it created a scholarship “to get students to think about their future and put into words how they intended to be a benefit to their communities. We also challenged the authors to familiarize themselves with the history of asbestos and mesothelioma.”

The firm said it paid out the scholarship twice in the three years it was offered, and discontinued it due to “the diminishing number of applicants.” It declined to say whether it created the scholarship as a result of working with a reputation or SEO consultant.

Seemingly taking its own advice, SEO company the HOTH also offers a “HOTH SEO Scholarship.”

To win the $1,000 prize, a student must write an essay about digital marketing, post it publicly, and include at least one link back to thehoth.com. The HOTH gave out the award this year, but it’s unclear if it has been awarded every year since being announced in 2016. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Two other scholarships listed on the same college page as the HOTH’s are in the names of Andrew and Irina Dorko. These are real people with online personas. They appear to be trying to cover up their arrest in 2015 for cocaine possession. The charges against both were later dismissed. But in the wake of their arrests, the couple suddenly launched new social media accounts and personal websites that used stock images for their profile photos. Andrew Dorko did not respond to emails, and messages sent to two websites operated in Irina Dorko’s name did not receive a reply. The Florida lawyer who handled their cases confirmed the charges were dismissed but declined additional comment.

Fake personas for Adrian, Chase, and Blake Rubin also offer scholarships, and they’ve been successful at securing mentions and backlinks from real schools. Washington State University and the University of Maine listed the Chase Rubin Scholarship in the financial aid sections of their sites. Washington State University removed a listing for the Chase Rubin scholarship after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. The University of Maine did not respond to a request for comment, and the scholarship is still listed as of this writing.

Screenshots

Homepages for some of the Rubins’ scholarships.

Chase Rubin’s name is being used by three seemingly fake online personas: a photographer, real estate developer, and private financier. His brother, Blake, now shares his name with a fake female travel photographer, web developer/tech worker, and real estate developer. All claim to live in Philadelphia. They use stock images for their profile photos and in some cases the different personas link to each other. In one case a Facebook profile for real estate developer Blake Rubin links to the website for tech worker Blake Rubin. Oops.

Their father, Adrian, is also represented by multiple personas. One is a freelance creative director whose site describes him as having “spent over 30 years working all over the city of brotherly love.” He recently offered health tips for freelancers in a piece of sponsored content published by Philadelphia Weekly, a reputable newspaper. On his website, he uses a stock image of a white man. On Twitter, he’s Asian. He’s joined online by Adrian Rubin the Philadelphia tech worker and Adrian Rubin the Philly real estate developer. (Emails sent to Adrian Rubin and his lawyer did not receive a reply.)

Then there’s the work done for Ian Leaf/Andrews. He was found guilty of 13 counts of fraud in 2005 for bilking more than $50 million from UK taxpayers. Prior to his extradition to the UK, Leaf was living in a mansion in Switzerland, owned two private planes, and was married to his third wife, a former Miss Sweden.

The press covered his case closely, resulting in reams of articles about his lavish lifestyle and the fact that he had previously escaped extradition to the UK by traversing the Alps by foot from Italy back to Switzerland.

“He used his private jet to transport his children to school and his wife from Geneva to London to get her hair done,” reported the Daily Mirror. “All paid for through a string of bogus companies around the world, borrowing money from Leaf’s own bogus bank and all claiming bogus losses to reap huge tax dividends.”

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform / Amazon

After serving his sentence, Leaf resurfaced publicly in 2013 in media reports that revealed he’d changed his name to Ian Andrews and was still involved with one of his former companies, Home Funding Corporation, or HFC.

As early as 2015, online personas in his two names began pumping out content on websites with domains such as ianleafreviews.com, ianandrewsfraudster.com, and ianleaf.com. Accounts were set up on Medium, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The reborn Ian Leaf billed himself as “the Fraud Watcher,” a consultant dedicated to “preventing businesses in every industry from falling prey to the deceitful practices of fraudsters.”

The persona has conducted interviews and published books on Amazon, sometimes with Ian Andrews listed as a coauthor. As with the Rubin personas, the author photo used for Ian Leaf is taken from a stock image site.

As a way of capturing searches related to his name and HFC, the company the convicted fraudster was involved with, an Ian Leaf persona self-published a book, Ian Leaf’s Starting a HFC Business at Home. In the book, HFC is an acronym for “high fashion clothing” rather than Home Funding Corporation, his actual business. But the title still works for SEO purposes. BuzzFeed News contacted his attorney for comment but did not receive a reply.

If any of the above practices seem like a breach of professional ethics, they aren’t. Reputation management consultants who spoke to BuzzFeed News say it’s an industry with no rules or agreed-upon standards. Ethics are purely a matter of personal opinion. What works on Google is what matters most.

“It’s like the Wild West,” said Hopkins of DiamondLinks and AfterHim Media. “There’s not much regulation, there’s not much industry oversight, there’s not necessarily good best practices.”

Beal, the SEO expert, called tactics such as fake personas and scholarships that never pay out examples of the “black hat, unethical techniques” that have emerged in the industry.

Cuttonaro of the Link Builders acknowledged creating a persona for one client, but said it was due to “exceptional circumstances.”

“We never do that. This is like the one and only time that we had to do that to create diversions and distractions,” he said.

The client in question said they were facing death threats related to past work that involved the US government. Cuttonaro was asked to devise a strategy to muddy search results in their name. (An FBI special agent who spoke on condition of anonymity told BuzzFeed News that the person in question was facing a credible ongoing threat. As a result, they are not being named in this story.)

Though Cuttonaro said the situation was an exception and related to national security, he also utilized one of the sites created for a fake persona to place articles for other clients and to promote male enhancement supplements. His company also created a scholarship for the fake persona and was successful in having it added to college websites.

Cuttonaro initially said he was unsure if the scholarship was paid out, or if his company was involved in its creation. Then he said he recalled being involved in it but that “we never got any applications … I cannot remember one.” Therefore, it was never paid out, he said.

“I’m letting you know, I’m one of the good guys,” he said.

“The Rubin personas are a perfect example of the lawless nature of the reputation management industry. ”

Telling the good guys from the bad can be difficult, and the Rubin personas are a perfect example of the lawless nature of the reputation management industry. Hopkins has been in business for more than a decade, and his LinkedIn profile says he is currently studying for a master’s in divinity.

He called it “a very normal thing” to create fake online personas to influence search results. “Generally, it’s something that the client would request,” he said. A page on his website says “about half” of the work he does for clients involves creating what he calls alter-ego online accounts ro help with search result suppression and link building.

But when asked about his own work on the personas for the Rubins and Ian Leaf, Hopkins would not admit to any involvement.

Hopkins is linked to the suspicious Rubin and Ian Leaf/Andrews personas via SSL certificates, domain registrations, and other information found by BuzzFeed News. His company, AfterHim Media, is listed as the vanity publisher of two of Leaf’s self-published books. The Google Forms used for Adrian, Chase, and Blake Rubin scholarship applications were also created by AfterHim Media. Another connection to Hopkins is the fact that the SSL certificate for adrianrubinscholarship.com is also used by tantrum.info and douglaspitassi.info, two domains owned by Hopkins. The only other website with that same SSL information is rookstoolinterviews.com, a site that publishes interviews with people who have paid for reputation management campaigns, including personas for all three Rubins. There are also direct connections between the Rubin and Ian Leaf/Andrews personas. The websites blakerubin.info and ianandrewsfraudster.com have the same SSL certificate, and an Adrian Rubin persona is featured in an article on ianleafreviews.com.

During a phone interview, Hopkins wouldn’t admit to any involvement with the Rubin personas.

“I’d have to check, we’ve got lots and lots of clients,” he said.

He did not respond to follow-up emails asking about those clients, and about connections between him and the Ian Leaf/Andrews personas.

During the phone interview before he broke off contact, Hopkins said his rule of thumb is that he only uses tactics that he’d feel comfortable disclosing to his client.

“I want to provide a good service to the client, so at the end of the day he can be proud of the work that we did … and that it is done in an upstanding way,” he said.

Of course, that rule doesn’t seem to matter much when you’re working for Ian Leaf or Adrian Rubin.

“Who is Adrian Rubin?” asked US District Judge Eduardo Robreno at a sentencing hearing last August.

Rubin had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, one count of conspiracy, and two counts of mail fraud. Years earlier, when faced with a slew of charges, Rubin became a cooperator and helped the government take down Charles M. Hallinan, the so-called godfather of payday lending, a lawyer who worked for both men, and Scott Tucker, a loan mogul who drove a race car and was featured in the Netflix series Dirty Money. In the courtroom and throughout the process, Rubin was remorseful. At one point he bought the bad debt of people who’d been ensnared by scammy payday loans so he could forgive it.

In court, Rubin, then 61, “tearfully described himself as a ‘horrible person’ trying to become a better one,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But the judge wasn’t sure if the contrite man in front of him was the real deal. In 1997, Rubin was released from prison after serving a one-year sentence for tax evasion. He promptly got into the payday loan business, according to the Inquirer, and later helped his sons sell worthless credit cards to people with low incomes.

“Is he the criminal who engaged in criminal activity over a long period of time, or is he the informed cooperator who cooperated against several codefendants and helped take down a pernicious industry? Even Mr. Rubin probably doesn’t know,” the judge said.

Thanks to the reputation campaign in his name and that of his sons, answers to that and other questions will only get harder to find online. ●

http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Tags

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
Close

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker