Google and the Case of Mistaken Identity

July 17, 2019

It started with the best of intentions.

In June 2018, Google announced a new feature which would help individuals and businesses better manage their presence in search results.  Per the announcement, “When you search for well-known people, organizations, and things on Google, you’ll often come across a Knowledge Panel on the results page—a box with an overview of key information and links to resources to help you go deeper.”

For those who aren’t familiar, below is an example of a Knowledge Panel, found in a search for former baseball player Alex Rodriguez (“ARod”):

The Problem with Knowledge Panels, and Google’s Solution

With the Knowledge Panel, there is the potential for Google to accidentally spread out-of-date or inaccurate information.  Imagine that tomorrow Jennifer Lopez breaks ARod’s heart. Would she still be listed as his partner in the Knowledge Panel shown above? 

Unfortunately, we’ve found that Google is not the best at updating these Knowledge Panels to account for new information – see this example where Google showed the wrong CEO for a major corporation for over a year after he stepped down!

To counter this, Google now offers companies and individuals the ability to “Claim this knowledge panel” via the button at the bottom of the screenshot above.  This feature allows the verified entities to directly submit change requests to expedite changes for out-of-date or inaccurate information.

Seems like a good solution!  

Intelligent digital reputation management requires that we follow these features closely, so we are always thinking critically about what each development means for our diverse set of clients.  

Because we try to err on the side of caution, when the feature was launched we immediately contacted relevant clients and advised them to claim their Knowledge Panels to ensure that others could not use the feature to request negative or malicious changes.

The “Solution” Breeds Another Problem…

Here’s where it gets interesting. 

Last week, I was looking into a Knowledge Panel-related issue for a client when I decided to see how real this risk was.  You see, there is another Ari Roth out there who is significantly more famous than I am. This other Ari Roth has a Wikipedia page, and because of this, a Knowledge Panel about him appears when you Google “Ari Roth”:

This Ari Roth actually has some of the issues I described above.  Specifically, the Facebook button listed at the bottom links to *MY* Facebook profile.  This is not the first time that something like this has happened. Below is a screenshot I took back on May 2nd when I noticed that it was my Twitter profile appearing:

To test Google’s system, I decided to submit a claim to this Knowledge Panel.  

While you can choose to provide them with screenshots showing you logged in to associated social media profiles, the only mandatory form of identification which the form requires is a selfie while holding government-approved photo identification.  

I filled out the form, providing the selfie with my ID, as well as screenshots showing me logged in to my Facebook and Twitter profiles, assuming and hoping on behalf of my clients that Google would realize that I was a different Ari Roth (there is a 25 year difference in our ages, for starters) and reject my request.

Mistaken Identity: Confirmed by Google

Sadly, a few days later, Google proved my assumption wrong when I got the following email:

Apparently, whoever was reviewing the verification requests did not bother to compare my selfie or the biographical information provided by my social profiles to images and biographical information for the Ari Roth who is actually described in the Knowledge Panel.  

Even a surface level review of this information would have clearly confirmed that I was not the Ari Roth in question.  Instead, it seems that anybody with the same name can be granted access to edit your online reputation. In an extreme case, I even wondered if I could game the system by legally changing my name to Alex Rodriguez. 🙂  There would be so many perks with that choice!

What Google Should Do Next

To be clear, I do not actually want to manage the search presence for someone who is not me.  While the other Ari Roth and I seem to share relatively few commonalities, I have no desire to submit malicious or negative information about him to Google.  This was just a test which I performed with a disappointing result. I hope that Google will read this, manually revoke my access to the Knowledge Panel in question, and adjust their internal processes so that others do not fall prey to someone with malicious intent.  

But my hopes for what Google will do have been let down before.

What the Other Ari Roth Should Do Next

Reach out to me via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, fax, carrier pigeon, etc.  I’m happy to submit any requested Knowledge Panel changes on your behalf for as long as I control it.  Once Google (I hope) revokes my access, click the button to claim your Knowledge Panel for yourself so that this doesn’t happen again.  Even a basic search on Twitter turns up tens of accounts under our shared name, and all it would take to change things for the worse is for one of our more malevolent doppelgangers to get control of the knowledge panel.

What *YOU* Should Do Next

Of course, it could have been (and I hope it was) that I just got “lucky” that a distracted Google representative was assigned to review my case.  But if it happened to my bizarro Ari Roth, it could happen to you or your company as well.  We continue to advise our clients and the public at large to claim their Knowledge Panels to ensure that others cannot claim them first.  This is no longer a hypothetical precaution. Your reputation could be in real, practical danger!

Taking a step back to a more macro view, this underscores the great importance for ownership of your personal or corporate brands online.  Relying on Google means that your reputation is vulnerable where their algorithms are vulnerable.  

And since when do you believe in random results for anything your company does?

Building up your owned websites, social media profiles, and even claiming your Knowledge Panels ensure that you control as much of your digital reputation as you can.  


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