When a news article exposed the criminal past of a former insurance claims investigator at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland — who’s now accused by federal prosecutors of embezzling $7 million from the company — it created a digital record available to the world.
Potential employers, industry colleagues, friends, relatives or anyone else who ran Michael Albert Quinn’s name in Google would find the 2016 Chronicle story at the top of the search list.
So it appears that Quinn — or someone looking to help him — did what many others have done when faced with a negative internet search result: Bury it.
Using the name “Michael Albert Quinn Kaiser,” which combines the 48-year-old’s name and the name of his alleged fraud target, somebody created social media accounts, blogs and web pages that began to populate Google searches and eventually pushed the unfavorable story down the page.
The result, according to experts, is the product of a complex process that’s well known in the growing world of online reputation management. A person unhappy with search results not only has to create new digital content, but also fool Google’s algorithms into giving the web pages and social media accounts high rankings.
“This is not the kind of work that you do by yourself,” said Herman Tumurcuoglu, an online reputation management expert in Montreal. “Google is dynamic, and there’s constant learning going on. You have to keep up in the industry.”
Techniques to mimic engagement and boost search rankings range from company to company and are often closely guarded in the industry. Google did not respond to a request for comment about its ranking algorithm.
But in general, Tumurcuoglu said, someone could suppress a negative article by following the steps done for “Michael Quinn Kaiser.” First, create accounts on Tumblr, Crunchbase, WordPress, Twitter, LinkedIn and dozens of other pages. Then, begin populating each site with content. Last comes the tricky part.
To boost search engine optimization, a person must crowdsource digital clicks from a variety of sources, mimicking interest in the content.
“This process starts moving it up,” Tumurcuoglu said. “It happens over many months. If the negative article was the first result, it can take up to a year to bury the result.”
Studies show that nearly 95% of people don’t click past the first page of search results, so the goal is to get the bad press on page two of Google search results — or “the best place to hide a dead body,” Tumurcuoglu said.
The technique won’t scrub an article off the internet. And many employers hiring for sensitive positions, like government jobs, do extensive background checks that would probably reveal a documented criminal past.
But for people looking to network with other professionals or keep things hidden from friends and family, the results can be significant.
The internet and social media’s ever-growing reach in society has fueled demand in the online reputation management industry. Job candidates, singles, students and any other person must consider how they are represented online, which directly affects their livelihood.
Patrick Ambron is CEO of New York’s BrandYourself, which offers services to people looking to clean up their digital profiles. Some customers want to purge embarrassing social media posts, he said, while others are victims of online harassment or revenge porn and need protection.
Negative media coverage is one of the hardest forms of content to kill because Google’s algorithms rank news stories high in search.
“News has a lot of authority in Google, and it outlives the news cycle. That’s a new phenomenon in society,” Ambron said.
Some companies in his industry, he said, use black-hat techniques, which manipulate Google’s algorithms. For example, someone could run a script creating a multitude of artificial clicks that’s not in the spirit of how Google intends for people to use its search tools.
It’s unclear what approach elevated the seemingly bogus pages above the article on Quinn, which detailed his past felony convictions for falsifying evidence in a criminal case in 1994 and embezzling nearly $80,000 from Nordstrom in Pleasanton in 2002.
He apparently kept those records hidden from Kaiser, where he started in 1998 and worked until he was fired in 2014. He went on to work for Save Mart Supermarkets as the director of risk management and loss prevention before leaving under circumstances the company wouldn’t discuss.
In the three years since The Chronicle story was published, Quinn has run into more trouble. In 2017, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that he owes Kaiser $18.5 million after he failed to show up for depositions and hearings in a civil lawsuit. And on April 5, federal prosecutors charged him with fraud after a years-long FBI investigation.
On Wednesday, Rohnert Park police arrested Quinn, who was transferred to Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland and then released Friday. His attorney, Tony Brass, said three co-conspirators named in the charging documents against Quinn make it difficult “to determine the comparative levels of culpability for those involved.”
“I’m not certain why a case this old would still have so many people that are uncharged,” he said.
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