How To Game Google To Make Negative Results Disappear
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 to 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. ●