A close friend in online marketing approached me for advice because their son had been arrested for possession of marijuana and mugshots had begun ranking for his name in search engines. When arrest photos like this appear online, they can be fixed relatively easily, as online reputation management issues go. Read on, and I’ll explain.
The mugshot website problem
Mugshot sites are generally rather scummy. They harvest data from city, county and state policing agencies, thanks to freedom of information laws, and then they build entire websites upon the data. Arrest records and mugshots are considered public information and that used to not be all that commonly accessible. Now these mugshot websites work diligently to optimize their websites to make their pages as visible as possible.
Mugshot websites generally create a page for each individual, including information about the city and state where they were arrested, their mugshot photo, the charges for which they were arrested and sometimes additional details such as aliases, distinctive characteristics, tattoos and more.
Mugshot profile pages typically are built to feature the names of people arrested as the main titles of the pages. This particularly optimizes the pages, helping them to rank well along with the image content. So when the names of people arrested are searched upon in Google and Bing, these pages can rank high in the search results, following those individuals around as they try to live life, negatively impacting their personal relationships and careers.
These websites make money through two primary avenues: revenues derived from the ads appearing on their sites and various ways of charging individuals in return for removing the arrest records and mugshots. You might well ask whether the latter is legal, since it sounds a bit like an extortion scheme. It is, but I think it should not be since these sites rarely exercise the sort of responsibility that should ethically accompany this type of data.
Others agree with me on that – for instance, some credit card and financial service companies decline to work with the mugshot sites. And, some states have made it a crime to charge someone to remove the mugshot. Even so, the mugshot sites have found shady ways to still get money in return for removals – such as making a behind-closed-door business deal with online reputation management companies. The mugshot website recommends the reputation firm to people seeking to have information removed and the reputation firm takes the payments from people wanting removals and gives a portion of that money back to the mugshot site.
This is what makes the issue so slimy. Each time you pay a mugshot site, or a reputation firm that has partnered with them, your money helps keep the whole thing going. You may not realize that the mugshot website operator may own half a dozen other arrest websites which you also must pay in order to have the inconvenient material removed. Once you have paid one this may give them an incentive to publish the materials in other places.
If you pay one company to take it down, the chances are that there may be other websites where it also appears. Once it disappears from one website, you may find three more that you were not aware of, waiting in the wings to rise into visibility in the search results.
Google now helps those with mugshots
It is the high visibility in search engine results that often makes a mugshot so destructive. This is where Google actually has lended a hand to those facing this problem.
Five years ago, Google began demoting mugshot websites in the search rankings. This means that despite those mugshot websites’ efforts to show up as effectively as possible, they usually cannot outrank other materials for the same searches. Google made it harder for their pages and the mugshot photo images to rank as high.
Unfortunately, the mugshots or arrest pictures can and do frequently still show up. Google’s suppression fix may have eroded some in the intervening years, but typically mugshots only pop up high in search results when there are not other contents that are relevant for the same name. These things usually appear in cases where the person featured in the mugshot has a very unique name that is shared by few-to-no others, and they have kept a generally low profile on the internet. If you have no photos or few photos associated with your name on the internet, then when a photo is published with your arrest records it is likely to become prominent very fast. Nature abhors a void, and in this sort of situation, so does Google.
Google’s mugshot suppression fix helps you when there are more pictures available for your name. So, if you find your mugshot is showing up on page one in Google, then you will want to publish your own photos on pages you control which cast you in a positive light.
How to optimize your positive photos to replace the mugshots
It’s desirable to have a few handfuls of photos of yourself to use in your project. Google does not like to show a list of pages with identical content in the search results, so you cannot use 20 copies of the same photo for this purpose.
This is where your family photo album may be your best friend. You will need digital copies of the pics of you, so if you only have hard copies, scan them or take pictures of the photos with your cell phone. The best file format is generally going to be JPG or JPEG, but GIF can also work as well as PNG.
While the pictures do not have to be only of you – they can include other people in them along with you. However, you do want a number of them that are only of you, and the ones with others as well should mostly feature you within them as a primary or prominent subject.
If you already have a Facebook profile, Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter, you can use those to your advantage. Make sure you have a good picture to use for your profiles – you can also search to see what the best picture size is for each of those services. Be sure to change your settings if you have your profiles set to private or hidden posts. You need public profiles in order for the search engines to access and display photos.
Note: If you are concerned with privacy, you can set up separate social media profiles just for this project and keep your personal Facebook and Twitter accounts private. On Facebook, it is easiest to Create a Page, which is done while logged-in under your personal account. The Page can be public-facing, while your personal profile is not.
Social media accounts for this purpose should be created with your name as the profile name. Over the course of a number of days, post one or two pics a day and include your name in the captions of the image (where applicable) or in the update posting text, along with varying additional description of what the photo is of, where it was taken, and/or the dates.
Other free image sharing services can be useful, too, such as Flickr.
If you are not intimidated by setting up your own webpages, having a personal website can be very advantageous to publish more images of yourself. Obtain a domain name that is brief and contains your name. Then launch a website on it using WordPress as the website software.
As a less-daunting option, you can set up a personal website at WordPress.com for free, and the website software is already set up and ready-to-go.
Additional places to set up personal webpages include: Tumblr, About.me, Yelp, LinkedIn, Medium.com, blogspot.com, etc. Many other sites can be useful beyond these, as well, if you look around for them.
Add your personal photo as the profile image at these places as well as posts where applicable that feature your photos. Always try to include your name in the image file names (ex: “YourName.jpg”), captions and what is called “ALT” or alternative text (this is text that is hidden from the casual internet user, but which tells machines what the subject matter of an image is).
Once you have published your photos in all of these various places, and Google has had an opportunity to find them and index them, you will be delighted to see that your desired photos began appearing higher in the search results and should begin displacing the negative mugshot image!
This same approach can simultaneously work in Bing search results but at a much slower rate. Bing has not applied a helpful suppression to these sorts of sites so greater efforts over a longer period may be necessary to offset mugshots there.
Avoid paying the mugshot websites, since that has incentivized them to create a business that preys upon people’s shame and profit in an extortionary way. It’s also a slippery slope that may not solve your problem since another site may appear each time you think you have made it go away.
Some states have enacted laws requiring website operators to be responsive to removal requests without charging fees. Some may voluntarily remove mugshots if you can represent that charges have been dropped or records expunged. If you can persuade the websites to delete materials without paying them, it is worthwhile to do so in combination with publishing photos of yourself.
Ideally, states or the federal government ought to go further, and require those websites that consume arrest records and court records to automatically update their databases to remove mugshots and such when charges are dropped, convictions are not going to happen due to statutes of limitations and when court records are expunged. Before the internet, our legal system envisioned concepts of innocent-until-proven-guilty and allowing people with minor issues to recover their reputations through expungements and such. But, the internet has reversed these elements out of the equation and our society has ratcheted-back to a more medieval state where people can be branded longterm by what should be considered irrelevant past deeds or minor infractions and youthful missteps.
However, you have the tools to suppress your mugshots in search engines’ results by publishing a bunch of images associated with your name. Leverage any photo albums you already have and you can begin making progress very rapidly with these steps.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.