Some sites I manage outrank certain companies for certain keywords where it'd really make sense for image manager people to complain. Except that if they *did* complain, and Google *acted* on their behalf, Google'd have a lot of explaining to do in court as to how this web search system thingie actually works. Mind you 'my' sites are all white-hat. It's just they are very popular on these topics.
One of the keywords was a brand name. All we had was a very strong page, a pretty positive *article* on them. This ranking, as expected, didn't last long: only a couple of years ...!
But even then, all that happened was that it was overtaken by the official page, and thus ours became #2, which it still is. Considering its link growth, this was fair enough.
The other day one of the *other* brand names this site ranked for stopped showing the page in the top 10. I had two thoughts initially, for the first one I folded a custom shaped tinfoil hat ( I wonder if your friend has one ) and pondered about recent job listings posted at Google ( a fact's a fact ). The other was: we don't have not one link with the anchor text of a *very* common variant for this brand name ( which is incorrect, yet often searched ).
I corrected the problem.
The ranknig came back.
( this happened two months ago, ranking is still there. )
I've never seen 'brand image' kind of editorial manipulation of the SERPs over these phrases... even though I bet some of my / my partners' / affiliates' sites are really making a few PR people crazy. Mind you they're all postivie / supportive of the brands, services they are about. And none of them were selling stuff directly.
Thus I don't buy the story of such manipulation. Google'd have too much to lose.
If they really did edit out a listing, there's something about it that was illegal/unethical or already covered in their guidelines in the first place.
What I can imagine: related words, brands, company names turning into monitored ( 'competitive' , 'high trust' ) words overnight. Whether this can be done on request... who knows. But all it'd do is set the bar... very... very high.
If they managed to get rid of a listing with the algo, the page lacked** something vital, or had something in excess, making it unwanted in the top league ( for this phrase ).
** : What I *do* see often, is Google's understanding of phrases and their relations getting better. Some words suddenly get included in the matrix of semantically related keywords, and thus get their own trust threshold to filter SERPs with. Also, from then on, a healthy link profile will have variations of the now admitedly 'competitive' word/phrase. Any and every 'new' aspect of phrase and trust based filtering, reranking gets turned on: co-occurrence, anchor text variations, percentages, everything will be monitored. A site that's lacking in *either* deparments could disappear overnight. Example: new brand name gets included on the list of monitored words and/or categorized along the related subjects/keywords. For this you can always check AdWords, see what their sytem thinks.
[edited by: Miamacs at 12:49 am (utc) on April 5, 2008]