Trying to Maintain Your Online Reputation

Photograph by Roger Tully

As the founder and chief executive officer of online identity-management firm Vizibility, James Alexander acknowledges that some reputation companies have a hard time managing their own reputations. But he points out that negative information—smears, complaints, and skeletons escaping the closet—can quickly, and often unfairly, undermine credibility, particularly for business owners who depend on a strong, professional online presence. I spoke to Alexander, a serial entrepreneur in New York who holds patents for online-search technologies, about tackling common problems. Edited excerpts of our interview follow.

How should small business owners manage their individual and company identities online?

They need to be tracking and monitoring what’s going on. Take the time to see what’s being said about you. On the Internet, nothing goes away; it’s there forever. You can legitimately have certain things removed, but that might involve a lawyer and a cease-and-desist action that becomes cost-prohibitive.

In some cases, a lawyer is going to explain to the small business person that if something’s not libelous, you’re not going to be successful in getting it removed, anyway.

How does someone trying to start a company address something very negative coming up about them in a search engine?

You need to deal with it. If you screw up on billing or something and there’s a public posting, you have the opportunity to say: “I saw your post. I’m heartbroken about it. Please reach out to me and help me make this right.”

That’s where you can turn detractors into advocates. If you can give them a refund or a free trial, and that makes them want to go back and take down their post or post again about the resolution, that can be very positive and powerful.

Is this something you see happening a lot?

In most cases, people run their businesses properly and adhere to a code of ethics and they’re genuine and sincere, so they deal with a problem before it goes online. But occasionally, some customer is hell-bent on sharing what they perceive as a bad experience.

Even if you know who it is, respond to the post publicly and send a message that you care, you’re alive, and you’re working on it. Reasonable people who see a complete whacko online disparaging your business—after you’ve made a good-faith effort to resolve a problem—will be sympathetic to you.

What about some mistake you’ve made in the past—or the company’s made—that comes up when clients research you online?

The best example is we had an attorney recently who had some negative regulatory action taken against him 25 years ago. Postings about that were showing up in his results, even though he had no trouble ever since then. At the end of the day, the likelihood of getting those posts taken down are quite low. They’re valid and not libelous.

The same thing goes for criminal records or police mug shots being posted online by websites that go out of their way to search-engine-optimize their sites because they are dependent on advertising revenue.

How did you handle that?

If there is something really negative out there, it will be found. I could tell [our lawyer client] found a way to talk about this blemish and be upfront about it. These are opportunities to show that you’ve learned from a big mistake, own it, and show how it’s improved your character.

Where do you see this area going in the future?

In the next decade we’re going to have to grapple with this issue and have a conversation about how long things online should be allowed to live. For instance, most negative stuff can be expunged from your credit file after a certain number of years. You can request that a missed credit-card payment be removed. There’s precedent here for how we deal with activities in our past that may have reflected a different time in our lives. We could use that process as a way to start the conversation.

But is transparency such a bad thing if it allows customers and other business owners to be warned about someone who’s fraudulent or even just incompetent?

As a parent, I’d want to know if someone I’m hiring as a ballet teacher had something criminal in their past related to children 25 years ago. So there are considerations that will go into formulating the right balance there. But look: People pay the price, do their time, become rehabilitated and—at least in our country—it’s about opportunities and having second, third, or fourth chances.

Of course, that has to be balanced. So we might decide that someone being an alleged sex offender can never be expunged online whereas someone complaining about a fly in the burger at your restaurant can be expunged after three years of perfect health code ratings, or something like that.

And what about reputation companies having a hard time managing their own reputations?

It’s ironic, but if anything it proves the point about how hard it is to control and manage this. If even these guys can’t get rid of negative stuff offline, then it’s a really hard thing to do.

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