The Web has many wonderful attributes, but there can be a downside to its openness. One problem is that anyone can post anything about a company or person—whether it is true or not.
The need to monitor the Internet for possibly harmful statements about a person or company has led to a new kind of service: online reputation management (ORM). ORM services range from removing negative information to pushing positive information higher up on Google’s search results. Increasingly, some ORM executives are finding that posting positive data is vastly easier than erasing the bad.
At least one ORM executive says the slumping economy could be a significant ORM driver. Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender.com, says he is seeing more instances in which clients, such as lawyers, doctors, or contractors, are upset about postings “that truly perplex [them]” seemingly without basis in fact.
Fertik posits that in this economic climate, more people could be posting rants simply to undercut competition. He says he’s also seeing more people disparage companies that they may have previously worked for.
Clients often ask him to try to delete information, but Fertik says this can often be a daunting task. He says he only attempts to try to contact a Web site owner, for example, in certain cases where information is undoubtedly false or abusive (containing threats, for instance). Another reputation executive, Chris Martin, founder of ReputationHawk.com, has a similar policy.
Web administrators vary widely in their responsiveness to inquiries and requests, Martin says. Some post contact information, but in reality, they don’t respond to e-mails or phone calls. Others will refuse to change anything on their site “even when it is clear the information is completely made up.”
Sites tend to assume that they have a great deal of freedom under the First Amendment, says Fertik, who is also an attorney. Based on language in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, he says, most courts have given broad immunity to sites regarding user-created content they post. In a few cases, sites have been ordered to reveal posters’ Internet Protocol addresses, which can sometimes help to identify them. But trying to threaten sites with legal action can be extremely time-consuming, Fertik says.
In some cases, sites are hosted in foreign jurisdictions, further hindering legal recourse. Even if some information can eventually be successfully removed, it could, by then, have been archived or duplicated elsewhere online.
The good news is that the volume of information on the Internet is such that much of the negative rants will be buried amid heaps of other data and will remain unseen by most persons. In about 90 percent of cases, people using search engines such as Google won’t look beyond the first page, Martin says. Only about 2 percent of searchers will look beyond the first two pages. Keeping bad information off these two pages forms a large part of his business model, he says.
ORM work involves creating new sites, writing positive content, and working to lift existing positive information higher on search engines’ rankings, Martin says. It also involves using search-friendly keywords and adding numerous Web links. Martin’s firm also strives to keep up with ever-changing ranking methodologies at Google and other engines.