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Are You Worth Less Than Oil? YU Thinks So

You probably don’t live in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, you probably don’t live anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, but chances are, you heard something about the big BP oil spill back in 2010. While most people only care about the price of gas in relation to their own (now-thinner) wallets, BP cared a lot about the oil that spilled into this huge body of water and how it affected the public’s opinion of their company. Instead of worriedly watching the price boards above the gas station for a 10-cent increase, BP was worried that their reputation was on the line – in a big way.

Rather than ignore the problem, they launched an ingenious marketing solution to control the PR about the spill and spin the facts to their benefit. They hid links on Google that led potential customers to sites full of BP backlash and created alternate links that boasted the positive actions they were taking, combined with the remorse they were feeling. The result? A total image revamp that made BP seem, if not completely responsible, at least redeemably stupid. The fact that they are still successfully around today with thousands of customers at the pump is the proof that their campaign worked.

How does this relate to YU? Think back to the Bernie Madoff scandal. With your busy schedule and forward-thinking mind, it might seem like Madoff is ancient history, but Google doesn’t think he is. When you search “Yeshiva University” on Google, the first title that comes up is the official school website. The second title is a link to a New York Times article about the Bernie Madoff scandal and the reaction of YU students and teachers, in light of the fact that Madoff was so intertwined with the school.

While not outwardly anti-Semitic, the Times article raises a few points about doing business with Jews, as a reaction to Bernie Madoff’s deception. Quotes appear that distort our image, such as, “Will people be more skeptical of the Jewish community?”, “This is a very public case of a failure of [our] religious ideal,” and “[Students] worried that [Madoff’s] Judaism might tarnish their own, that outside eyes would not be able to see past his faith.” There is a subtle implication throughout the article that doing business with Jews is a questionable enterprise, something to consider carefully before approaching.

As a YU undergraduate student, future employment might not be on your mind. But come June, whether of 2012, ‘13, or ‘14, it probably will be. As a recent graduate, the very first item that will appear on your resume is the college you attended.

Here’s the scenario: you find an interesting looking job and submit your resume. Mr. Potential Employer scans it, is impressed, and decides to take a closer look. “Hmm, Yeshiva University? Never heard of it.” He performs a Google search to see where you went. Boom. Bernie Madoff scandal. If he had any reason to choose someone else over you for the job, he now has much greater motivation to push him in that direction.

Maybe you have a long road ahead before you consider employment, but you probably care about the future of the Jewish people. Yeshiva University is the largest and highest-ranked Jewish college in the U.S. today, coming in at an impressive number 45 in U.S. News and World Report’s 2012 rankings. For someone with a mildly Jewish background, this number alone might be enough to provide the push towards a Jewish education. Even a teenager who has attended public school K-12 might be interested in a Jewish college if it means a share in the prestige and honor that comes with a top-ranked school, not to mention Modern Orthodox day school graduates who are deciding between YU, an Ivy, and a state school.

Between these potential students, your potential employers, interested investors and dozens of other curious parties, YU gets 33,100 hits every month on Google. That’s more than 100 people a day, or about 1 person every 15 minutes. It’s close to half as many as Exxon-Mobil (one of the largest companies in the world) gets, and it’s growing.

And all 33,100 of these people are seeing Bernie Madoff.

You’ve probably accomplished a lot in your time at YU. YU has an a capella group that has made the national news numerous times and shot to fame on YouTube. Its students take social justice trips every year to help the impoverished in Israel, Honduras, India, Thailand and even provide clothing for their neighbors in Washington Heights. There are mental health groups, student government organizations, shiurim, the world’s largest Jewish book sale, and more. Its graduates regularly become pulpit rabbis, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, inventors, engineers, teachers, therapists and dozens of other accomplished professionals. Isn’t it a shame that no one is going to know this?

For those who go or went to YU, the lack of positive information on the internet means a lack of pride in your alma mater. It means that alumni who forgot how much they loved YU are less likely to be inspired by their school online and therefore, less likely to give back. It means that future employers are not going to see all the reasons they should hire you, but the reasons they should not. And it means that students who are considering applying to YU might be turned off before they can be drawn in.

Before you think that there’s nothing that can be done about this frustrating situation, think again. Google is a powerful search engine and that power can be harnessed to work for us, instead of against us.

Think of Google as your OCD roommate: nothing is random or by chance, everything is calculated down to the last detail and absolutely every little piece of information can be found written on an organized list. When you search for any set of words on Google, a pre-written list of websites pops up, showing all of the top choices for those words. These top choices were not randomly chosen and they were not compiled while you typed; no one is sitting in the Google office saying, “Hmm, I like this one.” The whole thing takes .19 seconds!

The lists are pre-compiled and results are based on a series of rankings: the popularity of the domain name, the age of the posting, the number of sites that point to that domain and their own popularity, the relationship between the sites that name the domain and the domain itself, and a number of other factors.

The popularity of the domain name is easy to understand: an article explaining “What is bowling?” will show up on Wikipedia before it shows up on “Greg’s Bowling Busters” because Wikipedia is way more popular. The age of the posting means that the older it is, the more time it has had to gain readership and popularity and, therefore, it will show up before a more current article explaining the same thing.

The number of sites that point to the domain means that Google takes into consideration how many other people are talking about you, linking to you and referencing you; the more people that talk about your website on their website, the higher up you will show on Google. Of course, if they are popular websites, you’ll get even higher than if they are anonymous bloggers. The relationship between the domain and the people talking about it is also important. If you want to know about bowling, you’re more likely to trust other bowling experts than a hairdresser. Therefore, it helps if the websites talking, linking and referencing your domain actually know something about the topic; the more closely related, the higher up you go.

Luckily for those who wish to rise to the top, there are experts in “SEO,” or search engine optimization, who can utilize all of the above factors to push an unknown website higher on a Google page than it would naturally show up. These experts can also engage in search engine marketing, which uses SEO combined with social media marketing, such as using Facebook and Twitter; web promotion, such as writing and putting content on the web that points to the domain; and link building, which increases the number of links to your website.

Now, YU doesn’t have that Google problem because it does show up first when you search for “Yeshiva University.” The problem here is overexposure: an unsavory link to the Bernie Madoff scandal right on page 1 of Google. Instead of needing SEO, YU could use some “reverse SEO,” which uses the same exact methods as SEO, but actually pushes an article lower on Google’s list.

Reverse SEO is also known as “reputation management,” and that’s exactly what it is. By putting up new articles or working the system to make existing articles more prominent, and creating links and positive domain relationships, YU can gain status for all of their many accomplishments and serve to kick Bernie Madoff under the rug. Unfortunately, unless The New York Times decides to rescind their article and take it off their website (unlikely), it’s there to stay. But wouldn’t it be better if it was on page 52 of Google instead of page 1?

It is interesting to note that when you search “Yeshiva University Torah,” the Bernie Madoff scandal is nowhere to be found. Instead, dozens of links to shiurim, the YUTorah website, and other learning resources appear. YU is showcased as a growing, burgeoning bastion of Torah with plenty of shiurim, rabbanim, and events to boast about. An outsider who has never seen YU or experienced the magnitude of Torah learning that occurs here and searches for “YU Torah” would doubtless be impressed by the obvious intensity of YU Torah.

That shows that the number of positive links, connections and articles coming from YU Torah outnumber any negative press. If the school were interested, they could easily do this for the rest of the university by utilizing some reputation-saving reverse SEO. But they don’t seem to care.

With the advance of internet usage today, it’s likely that you own at least three devices that can access the internet at all times: a combination of your smart phone, iPod, laptop, and tablet. Chances are, you’re online a lot and so is everyone else. YU would never allow signs to be hung all over campus describing the Bernie Madoff scandal in full-blown detail, but that is essentially what they’re doing by allowing it to remain in full sight on the internet.

Rather than ignore the problem, shouldn’t YU address the issue and bring all our positive information to the forefront? Shouldn’t our accomplishments, organizations, constructive programs and famous alumni be more prominent than one forgettable crook? The internet isn’t getting any less popular; staying out of the online PR campaign means losing the online PR campaign.

When it came to BP’s reputation, their managers were there, doing everything they could to control the public’s image of their company. When it comes to YU and the inevitable reflection on its students, shouldn’t our leaders be doing the same?


Donny Zanger is the owner of All Week Walls, a New York City-based company. He graduated from Yeshiva University in 2007.