The Internet is a great communications tool. But like a hammer, it can be used to build a house, or it can break a window. The intent of the person wielding it is the key.
The great thing about the open microphone of the Net is that everyone is empowered to say whatever comes to mind, at least on sites that don’t moderate their comments. Gone are the days of top-down, where the masses waited eagerly for word to arrive on the latest news via approved professional filters. Now it’s everyone’s game, and many are seizing the opportunity to let the world know just what they think about local and world issues, actions, businesses, and individuals.
The problem with that is — wait for it — the lack of a filter. True, there is advocacy in every form of journalism. But there was typically a sense of fair play, wherein if you said Joe Jones was a no-good, lousy man, you’d have to call or visit Joe and get his reaction to that comment.
Not so with the Net. Sites like Yelp and similar services allow everyone to anonymously blast away, while there are no holds barred on anyone putting up a WordPress site and delivering their own version of the news. Don’t like what they write? You actually have a tough time fighting back, as any back and forth pushes the traffic on the original story, making a bad situation worse.
Into the breach come "reputation management" firms. They promise to eradicate bad results and move up good news, in effect scrubbing the Net of troublesome information. It is estimated to be a $700 million per year business by BIA/Kelsey, a Virginia media research firm, and that is expected to grow rapidly.
The firms — including Reputation.com (formerly Reputation Defender), Reputation Management Consultants, Brand.com, and many others — will work with you to try and manipulate perceptions by pushing the information you want others to see, and trying to move down the information you don’t. In a world where everything, from dates to jobs to rental decisions, is done through the Internet, first impressions count.
How Much Rep Can You Afford?
The cost isn't cheap, nor is there a “standard fee” for services rendered. It seems that most firms that have managed a toehold in the industry charge around $5,000 a month, but charges of $10,000 and up are not uncommon.
Now the big question — does it work? Mostly, is the best answer. Bad news seems to find its way online no matter what you do, and if you’re someone like George Zimmerman, you’re unlikely to ever move the needle on what the Internet will say. But through use of LinkedIn, Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook and other sites, some bad news can be pushed lower in the rankings. And if bad information is not on your front page, then it hardly exists, as most searchers rarely dig deep.
Of course, that’s the "white hat" version of scrubbing. There’s also what’s known as “black hat” tactics, which include posting positive articles on sites the client owns, and submitting fake reviews and comments to sites. The process is nicknamed “astroturfing,” and it is generally viewed as false advertising. Last fall, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman fined 19 companies for the practice. The fines ranged up to $100,000.
So what to do? Be pro-active, experts advise. Maintain a good LinkedIn site, be careful about posting in social media, and generally contribute to the business you’re in via online forums in a respectful, positive manner.
Or else be prepared to spend that $5000-$10,000 on your reputation instead of a vacation.