A world without Google? Impossible to imagine. For most journalists researching stories, the days of heading to a library crammed with folders of dog-eared yellow cuttings are already ancient history.
For many hacks, a search to find previous stories, fact-checking - and, indeed, digging for dirt, seeking out malcontents, whistle-blowers and anti-corporate campaigners - involves Google. As a result, securing a positive top-ten results list on Google has become imperative as organisations and individuals endeavour to protect and promote their reputations.
'The first page of a Google hit can dictate the reputation of a company,' says Hill & Knowlton UK netcoms director Niall Cook. 'If, say, seven of the top ten results are negative - even if they contain information that is five years old - then the reader is going to have a negative perception of that company.'
The Pew Center in the US has found that 91 per cent of reporters use search engines for research. According to a Hitwise survey in May, Google continues to dominate the UK search market.
Google gets Googled
The problems that can be created by hacks using Google were best highlighted by an incident last month in the US that led to Google's own PROs blacklisting CNET - after the tech news site ran a story revealing personal information about Google chief executive Eric Schmidt (PRWeek, 19 August).
CNET's article, exploring the ease of finding personal information on the net, used Google to unearth nuggets on Schmidt, such as his estimated worth and a link to his home address.
Inevitably, as Google's popularity continues, PR agencies are cashing in on client demand for what has been dubbed search engine reputation management (SERM) - in a line, says one PRO, 'sorting Google' (ensuring the opening pages of a search are positive).
Weber Shandwick has 25 staff globally in its 'web relations' group, with SERM part of a client offering that it brands 'Web Amp'. And SERM is a lucrative business: Mike Spataro, WS's Massachusetts-based global web relations practice leader and executive vice-president, says the agency typically charges a monthly fee of around $7,000 (£3,800) to $10,000.
For some, SERM has already gained an acceptance to rival the more established (and related) practice of search engine optimisation (for which software enables the embedding of coded words into web pages, sending sites hurtling up Google results lists).
So, for those aggrieved at the number of negative hits their brand is attracting on Google - and Spataro admits: 'We have had clients who have called and said "Get this stuff off Google!"' - what can one do?
The problem is that Google's formula for ordering websites - its so-called page-ranking algorithm - remains largely secret. Companies can, however, most easily gain prominence by either bidding for one of the sponsored links at the top-right of each page (an unsophisticated but popular approach) or by tweaking their sites, and deploying SERM specialists, to surge up the unsponsored search results.
One of the main ways PROs go about SERM is to target bloggers. Indeed, Spataro says: 'Blogging has set the issue (of SERM) on fire.'
Cook advises: 'The easiest way (to force negative information down a Google search) is obvious - aim to get more positive information about your client out there. You need a structured comms programme, translating your company's messages into a "search result".' Given Google's algorithm, this should not be attempted by amateurs. Cook says: 'People trying to stuff their page with keywords will be ranked down (by Google).'
Stephanie Bonnet, director of insights and ideas Europe at Burson-Marsteller, says: 'The key to high ranking on Google is to generate more positive brand mentions on blogs and to be "part of the conversation" with all stakeholders. Using Rich Site Summary (RSS) feeds (a format for distributing news headlines on the web) is also a good way to increase your ranking on search engines.
'Not many firms have their press releases RSS-enabled. If you provide content in RSS format on your site, as well as share content with other sites that can be picked up by RSS aggregators, you boost your chance of moving up the Google page.'
One major problem for PROs is that once information has been published online it is difficult to remove. Whether it is negative reviews of old products that have since been superseded or personal information on wrongdoing executives that have since left the firm, it is possible that such information will remain high on a Google search, much to that company's chagrin.
Fuse PR associate director Blaise Hammond points out: 'You can't delete history online. Google is almost like a person's medical report - it will always be there, you can't erase it.'
Cook concurs: 'There's not a great deal you can do about getting information off the web - unless it's false and requires legal action. From a PR point of view it's usually best to engage if there is, say, an individual with an axe to grind against your client, rather than send legal letters - this will often make things worse PR-wise.'
He adds: 'But too many companies dismiss some of these sites as "just being done by crackpots". As far as a Google search is concerned, this does not matter.'
Building what is effectively an unofficial online archive in which positive brand mentions outweigh negative ones is not simple. As Hammond says: 'You need to reiterate positive messages and put out good-news stories.
You need Q&As to allow space for flak and rebuttals. But it takes time.'
Spataro claims that it takes at least three months to 're-index pages and create new content and copy'. He explains: 'We can do an analysis quickly and prescribe a course of action - but it's the implementation that takes the time.'
Search engine optimisation - and, to an extent, SERM - take PR consultancies into largely non-traditional territory. Are they best placed to handle the challenge? Cook is biased, of course, but asserts: 'As good as web design agencies can be, they often don't understand what the company's main communications messages are. A communications (PR) agency needs to direct this, not a web design firm.'