Google the name of your company right now. See anything you don't like? If you do, at least a dozen services promise they can make it disappear.
An industry of online fixers is sprouting to defend clients against damaging information on the Web. With potential customers increasingly heading online to research products and services, bad reviews or complaints that turn up in a search can mean lost business. Reputation management services promise to highlight positive pages and bury offending sites deep in search results.
Most reputation services work by tracking what's written about a client on the Web, then doing search engine optimization (BusinessWeek.com, 9/10/07), promoting positive pages, and creating other sites that will push damaging references off the first pages of search results. The services are pitched as another tool companies can use in their PR and marketing efforts.
It's still hard to say how companies are using reputation management services, but industry players say clients fall into two camps. Some want to understand and respond to customer complaints; others often just want negative posts to go away. "The majority of inquiries that I get are from people who are looking to do a cover-up," says Andy Beal, a marketing consultant and co-author of Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online. "They're not necessarily interested in trying to fix the problem. They just want to make sure that other people can't find it."
Online reputation management evolved in the past two or three years in response to the explosion of social media that amplified the voices of individual Internet users. There are no data on how big the market is. "It's kind of a fast-emerging field as more and more companies become aware of the need to have some sort of tracking," says Michael Greene, an analyst at JupiterResearch who authored a report in January about responding to negative buzz online.
Reputation management companies describe typical small-business clients such as a pet store targeted by animal rights activists or a stockbroker linked to decades-old Securities & Exchange Commission violations. (Two different firms independently volunteered both as examples.) It's almost impossible to get such pages taken down, but placing enough positive references above to push them off the first page or two of Google (GOOG) results is where reputation management comes in.
But altering search results isn't cheap. Several companies said the typical cost for a small business client starts at $1,000 a month. More extensive services marketed to large corporations run into the tens of thousands of dollars. ReputationDefender, a two-year-old Menlo Park (Calif.) company that mainly markets to individuals, plans to introduce a service for companies that would cost a one-time fee of a few hundred dollars, according to founder Michael Fertik.
Fertik and others are establishing a trade group, the Online Reputation Management Assn., to certify members and promote best practices, because no clear standards exist for what is and is not acceptable. "We feel that a lot of ethical shadiness is happening in this business," Fertik says. Most companies set their own boundaries about what's appropriate: Beal says he won't take clients who appear to be a habitual offenders, and Fertik says he won't lie for clients or impersonate customers.
But there's little agreement on where the line is drawn.
For example, one company, Internet Reputation Management, founded last year by three partners in the New York area, recruits bloggers to write about clients on third-party sites, without necessarily disclosing that they're paid, according to partner Carl Sgro. "We ask bloggers to be truthful," Sgro says. "We don't want anything to be overembellished." Chris Martin, founder of two-year-old ReputationHawk in Baton Rouge, La., says his company runs blogs that promote his clients, but he doesn't pay bloggers to post on outside sites. Other companies warn against surreptitiously promoting clients on blogs, not least because if it comes to light, the damage is hard to control (BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/06).
Trying to spin search results is a tough game. For evidence, simply Google ReputationDefender. A recent search turned up in the fourth result a critical post from the Consumerist blog blasting the company for attempting to have a post removed. (Fertik says that taking down negative content, a service ReputationDefender markets to individuals, is not available for businesses.) Other bad press is not hard to find.
Google, for its part, says there is nothing inherently wrong with reputation services, but "if you use spammy and manipulative techniques to get this positive content to rank highly, we may take action on it," a spokeswoman writes in an e-mail. (With two-thirds of U.S. search volume in April, according to Hitwise, Google is clearly reputation companies' biggest target.) The company refers to its Webmaster Guidelines, for violations that can get sites banished, such as using hidden links or creating "cookie-cutter" affiliate pages just to boost page rank.
What should small-business owners make of all this? Beal says tinkering with what comes up when customers search a company's name may be necessary, but it's rarely sufficient to repair a reputation. "You have to take partial ownership in fixing your online reputation," he says. "It's not something that you can simply just provide a credit card number to a company and they can take care of it." While outside firms can help businesses influence results on Google, only the company itself can repair real damage to its reputation.
Flip through this slide show for advice on managing your company's online reputation.