A new study from Grayling finds nearly half the biggest companies in five key consumer categories are attached to negative content on the first page of Google searches -- a detriment to their businesses and reputations.

“We found that almost half of the Fortune Global 500 companies we analyzed failed this ‘brand resilience’ test, potentially causing millions of dollars of reputation damage, and certainly lost sales,” said Jon Meakin, Grayling’s global head of strategic services.

One piece of negative content on page 1 results in a 22% drop in traffic to a brand’s site, he said.

The study, released Monday, analyzed Google search results of the top 10 brands in five sectors: travel and tourism; financial services; healthcare; FMCG; and tech.

Key findings according to Grayling include:

  • Even among the well-resourced international businesses we analyzed, almost half had negative content on the first page of their Google search profiles (and 83% of people never make it past page 1)

  • Much of this negative content was old; the oldest story we found on page one of a company’s search profile dated back to July 2013

  • 85% of the negative content was more than a month old, demolishing the myth that it is only or mostly current content that is served up

  • The world’s biggest tech companies, while far from immune to negative issues, do the best job at keeping negative content off their page one search results, suggesting there are lessons for companies in other sectors

  • Breaking down the negative content into topics, the three most prominent spanning the five industry sectors looked at, were:

    • ◦Corporate ethics: 26%

    • ◦Customer service: 23%

    • ◦Cyber security: 23%

Meakin said the findings indicate that neither corporate or agency communicators are paying due attention to the problem, which could become more damaging as a new Google algorithm could rank negative input higher in search results.

“We are in the business of influence. And Google is, quite simply, the most influential source of information there is. Quite apart from its enormous reach (5.5 billion searches every day), research also shows that it is also more trusted than the news media, or advertising,” he said.

In addition, bad news sticks.

“It’s just a fact that people are more likely to click on, consume and share negative stories. Which explains why some of the negative content we surfaced as part of our analysis was so old. It just hangs around,” he said. “You can forget the idea of negative stories being ‘tomorrow’s chip paper.’ Online, they hang around forever. If you experience an issue or a crisis, it’s not over until Google says it is"