A Google search can reveal negative information about anyone or any company. Since it's difficult to change those results, many small businesses are paying thousands to so-called reputation management companies to make negative web pages disappear. Much of the work is legitimate, but a CBS News investigation into online reputation management found some companies hired to clean up Google searches appear to be engaging in criminal activity.
Hidden cameras set up by CBS News captured a meeting with John Rooney, who runs Web Savvy, LLC, a reputation management firm that buries bad reviews online.
"Look, when it comes to this kind of suppression, 'hiding,' pushing down work, it's dependent on a number of factors, a lot of which depends on Google," Rooney said.
Reputation management companies legally try to trick Google by flooding the internet with positive content about their clients, forcing negative links down to Google's second and third pages, where almost nobody looks. But that's not foolproof, so Rooney told CBS News that some companies employ other, shadowy tactics.
"Are there tricky ways to do it? Kinda gray areas, if you will? Yeah. I wouldn't risk it. I've seen it done," he said.
One of the only ways to get Google to permanently remove a link from its search results is with a court order from a judge. CBS News sorted through thousands of these court orders and spotted small businesses from all across America trying to clean up their reputations. But we also spotted a problem: Dozens of the court documents were fakes.
"It never even crossed my mind that people would have the guts to actually go out there and just forge a court document," said Eugene Volokh, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in internet law.
Volokh points out that forging a court document is criminal.
"Part of it is just how brazen it is. They take a judge's signature and they copy it from one order to another order and they pretend something is a court order. It's cheaper and it's faster -- if they don't get caught," Volokh said.
CBS News worked with Volokh and identified more than 60 fraudulent court orders sent to Google. Some are obviously fake, like one with a case number of "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9." Others are more sophisticated, and appear to be drawn from nine different federal courts across the country. The most recent fake court document we identified was submitted in April.
It's not just about making a bad review of a local restaurant disappear. CBS News uncovered bogus court documents submitted on behalf of two convicted criminals who wanted Google to forget about their crimes. Both were child sex offenders.
Of the more than 60 phony documents, we found that 11 had signatures forged from judges in Hamilton County, Ohio. One of those fake documents was submitted for a client who hired Web Savvy, LLC, the company run by Rooney. That's why we invited him to meet us with hidden cameras rolling.
AXELROD: "My name is Jim Axelrod and I'm with CBS News. I wanted to ask you a question about this contract you have. You recognize the name of the client?"
ROONEY: "I certainly do."
AXELROD: "This appears to be a court order. Same name of the client. One problem, John, this is fake. It's fraudulent, it's phony. Can you explain it to me?"
ROONEY: "I didn't file that. I've never seen it before."
AXELROD: "You're going to look me right in the eyes and tell me you had nothing to do with this?"
ROONEY: "I did not submit that document."
AXELROD: "Is this the technique you have ever used?"
AXELROD: "I'm trying to figure out how the same links that are in this contract that you were paid $7,500 to remove end up in a fake court order with the client's name?"
ROONEY: "I'm telling you, I don't know the answer to that question,"
AXELROD: "You understand how this looks, right?"
ROONEY: "I do. But... I appreciate your time, but there is nothing else to discuss."
We followed up with Rooney after the meeting, but he didn't have anything more to say.
Google declined a request for an interview, but said they work hard to spot bad actors trying to game the system.
The reporting by CBS News over several weeks led law enforcement to take action. The court clerk in Hamilton County, Ohio launched an investigation into those 60 fake documents and handed the matter to prosecutors. CBS News has also learned at least two referrals have been made to the FBI.