Inside The Mysterious World Of Online Reputation Management

In the Whack-a-Mole game of online reputation management, it’s not so much about completely erasing all the bad things that are being said about you on the Internet: it’s about replacing the stuff you don’t want people to see with things that you do want them to notice.

The Internet has a memory, and anything of note that happens to anyone is bound to find its way onto sites where everyone can see who you are and what you’ve been doing with yourself. All of it: the good, the bad and especially the really ugly.

It could be incidents that at the time, seemed funny or cool, but upon later examination turn out to a source of embarrassment. It could be the indiscretion at that beach party back in ‘05, or something more serious, like a minor drug possession charge when you were a kid. Or maybe your online persona is out of date – not reflecting a mid-life career change, for example.

Companies have similar issues, where their online presence can be marred by misdeeds or other issues, or could even be “hijacked” by outsiders or competitors with different agendas.

You might think that there’s little you or anyone else can do about how you’re perceived online – that you’re stuck with being defined by your unflattering court records or your ex-husband’s bitter complaints about your personality flaws.

But there’s a growing cottage industry of reputation management firms devoted to “fixing” these kinds of problems. But how exactly do they work?

The Reputation Management Process

According to Reputation Changer, the typical reputation management story goes something like this:

  1. The client – an individual or a company – has a problem with negative search engine listings and social media content
  2. The client engages a reputation management firm to address the problem
  3. The firm posts a series of positive content about the client is placed on the Internet.
  4. This new, positive, content, if delivered properly, begins to push down the negative content off the top pages of search engine results
  5. Eventually, the negative listings no longer show up on the first page of search results, which represents a much better situation for the client.

How much better? An AOL study revealed that on Google, page one search results received 89.7% of all click-through traffic. The next page of results drives just 4.4% of traffic.

Based on the case studies displayed by Reputation Manager, the positive content is delivered through the use of press releases that emphasize the aspects the client would rather see on the Internet, as well as the creation of new websites with the client’s information prominently displayed, even within the URL.

A names-withheld case study from Reputation Changer offers a typical scenario: When an auto repair shop started getting hammered with negative reviews created by a local competitor, the service worked to emphasize the positive reviews the repair shop did receive, and made sure more content was posted to the Internet that highlighted the better qualities of the shop.

More Than Glorified SEO?

So is reputation management basically nothing more than glorified search engine optimization (SEO)? For Reputation.com’s CEO and Founder Michael Fertik, it’s using lot of knowledge and a lot of technology to craft a message that the client would rather see out on the Internet.

Just how much of what Reputation.com does is social engineering vs. technological engineering? Fertik says its a mix of the two, but there’s more technology than you would think.

The firm’s clients usually have an idea how they’d like to be viewed online, Fertik said. Working with that goal, Reputation.com applies the client’s data to its database of social expectations and data outlets that most closely relate to the client’s needs.

This is a massive dataset, Fertik explained, and his team of PhDs and engineers use big-data analytical tools to help find the best way to distribute content that more closely reflects what the client wants to project. “Our technology stack helps us to be more scalable,” Fertik said. 

Reputation.com’s tools help publish content on the appropriate outlets and monitor that its effectiveness in changing Google results and chatter on social media channels. The company also takes an active role in identifying factual errors in online content and working to correct those errors.

Context Is Key

Fertik didn’t go into his company’s secret sauce, naturally, but a lot of what his company’s dataset manages for clients is the context of the information posted and how it affects reputation and sentiment. What works in the communications sector might not work so well in the medical sector. And context can be very different, he added, in Korea vs. the U.S.

Then there’s temporal context: information about the Olympics today has a different impact than when the London Olympics were actually taking place a couple of weeks ago. Reputation.com’s dataset algorithms will even track the mood of a monitored writer, determining clarity, sarcasm, or irony, just to name a few emotions. Determining the mood context of a writer can help determine if the content will work for or against the client’s reputation. “Context is a lifetime project,” Fertik said. “This is something that takes years to build.”

Another example of how this dataset works is the sub-system devised to score the writing styles of individuals on the Internet who have publicly revealed their Myers-Briggs personality ratings. This score, based on grammar, linguistic skills and temperament, can match up individuals writing about the client to writers with the same Myers-Briggs rating in order to help determine the content writer’s intent and motivation.

Fertik explained that his company sees two primary types of clients: those who need to deal with an emergency, such as some sort of attack on one’s reputation; and those who want to cultivate a different image for himself. Initially, the base clientele for Reputation.com were the professionals–doctors, lawyers, business owners – but it is now seeing more people and businesses facing life-altering situations. These moments can be good or bad, but they are usually something that needs to be managed for the long term.

Reputation Management Critics

Ironically, the reputation management industry has a reputation problem of its ownw: Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, takes a dim view of reputation management firms that work with oppressive governments in Africa.

“PR agents do not create ‘economic opportunities’ – they alter reality so that certain deals and foreign aid can flow faster and in larger quantities – all the while being rewarded handsomely,” Halvorssen wrote in a recent BBC publication focusing on Africa.

Clearly aware of the issue, Fertik claimed his company doesn’t work with those trying to hide criminal activities. “There are certain kinds of people we won’t help,” he said.

Managing Your Own Online Reputation

Like many other things on the Internet, online reputation management is moving towards self-service solutions. Last week, Reputation Changer announced dashboard software designed to let its users monitor their own reputations. Other reputation management companies have similar tools in place or in the works. 

Here are three key tips for managing your own reputation online:

1. Accentuate the Positive. If there are reviews about you or your company online, be sure to highlight the better ones, either on your website or on your Facebook or Twitter account. If there are real negative reviews out there, by all means address them with a sincere conversation and apology.

2. Get the Word Out. You can manage your online reputation by getting your own content out there, either on a blog or strong use of social media platforms. Be real, be yourself and be present.

3. Keep Talking to Clients. Whether online or off, keep the lines of communication open with your customers. Listen to their concerns and you may be able head off small problems before they explode online.

Managing your reputation online is an ongoing process. Everyone makes mistakes, and there will always be troublemakers. But consistently putting forth content that tells your side of the story is essential to helping you and your company weather trouble spots and keep your reputations as positive as possible.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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