ReputationChanger.com and Elixir Interactive are among dozens of companies that promise to help businesses and individuals control what Web searchers find when Googling a name. Search for Reputation Changer, though, and in some parts of the U.S. the first results page contains a link to a post saying the company “makes false claims.” And the No. 2 result for Elixir is an anonymous review that calls the company a “total scam.” Both companies blame unscrupulous rivals for the slights and insist their services are effective. “It’s a dog-eat-dog industry,” says Rich Gorman, Reputation Changer’s chief marketing officer.
In an age when you are whatever Google (GOOG) says you are, online reputation management is booming. These companies promise to enhance a client’s standing on the Internet by promoting or creating positive content, which pushes negative mentions lower in search engine results. Media consultant BIA/Kelsey estimates that small and medium-size businesses spent about $1.6 billion managing their online reputations in 2011. It expects the figure to grow to more than $5 billion by 2015.
Yet the industry has its own image problem. Even the most prominent player, Reputation.com, which charges $3,000 per year—and often many times that—to police search results for clients can’t entirely cleanse its own profile. The company’s first page of Google results is free of negative content, but when a user types the company name into the search box, Google’s auto-complete feature often suggests “Reputation.com scam” as one of the choices. “To solve this for ourselves is not an option based on the time and money we’d have to put into it,” says Michael Fertik, chief executive officer of the Redwood City (Calif.) company, which is backed by more than $67 million in venture funding. “Sometimes you can move content from page two to page five of Google, but the cost becomes so high that it’s not realistic.”
Experts say reputation management is harder than companies in the business acknowledge. Some reputation managers try to cajole site operators into taking down negative content or threaten legal action, but federal law says websites aren’t liable for comments and other information posted by users, and finding and suing writers of objectionable posts usually costs more than it’s worth. “Doing reputation management effectively is very deliberate, and you have to work at it,” says BIA/Kelsey analyst Jed Williams.
That means reputation managers have few options other than creating or promoting positive content on behalf of a client in hopes of burying negative mentions. Negative content, though, usually remains online, accessible to anyone willing to venture past the first few pages of search results. And Google says it takes a dim view of overly aggressive tactics such as loading pages with irrelevant keywords or creating multiple cookie-cutter websites in an effort to boost page rank.
Some of the negative reviews appear to be written by rival reputation managers. Elixir and other companies have been the target of an online smear campaign that’s been orchestrated by a competitor, says Fionn Downhill, CEO of Scottsdale (Ariz.)-based Elixir. Two years ago, almost identically worded attacks on leading reputation management companies appeared on Internet complaint sites, calling the target companies scams. Shortly thereafter, Downhill and others began getting unsolicited e-mails from reputation management companies offering to fix the problem. “If the Internet is the Wild West,” Downhill says, “then online reputation management is Dodge City.”