Reputation is all: Could the internet kill your company?
- 18 February 2011
- From the section Business
"For someone who's not famous, to see my name on the internet amazed me. Granted I sell multi-million dollar jets but so what?"
Rebecca Posoli-Cilli is the president of Freestream Aircraft, a private jet dealer. In a business like this a good reputation, especially online, is vital.
But misinformation on the internet nearly cost her her business.
When Ms Posoli-Cilli left her former job, before setting up the new company, her old employers were less than impressed and proceeded to sue her. She counter-sued, and the matter was settled out of court, a result she was very happy with.
She could have been forgiven for thinking that the matter was now settled.
In the brave new world of the internet, where every comment, photo and errant tweet can follow you indefinitely, things have a nasty habit of popping up again.
When prospective clients looked her up on Google, she says, details of the case popped up on that all-important first page.
"All you saw was this docket, that I'd been sued. But it didn't tell the whole story, it comes up as a black mark, but it didn't talk about the settlement."
Ms Posoli-Cilli's customers are among the wealthiest consumers in the world. They rarely appear on commercially available mailing lists, and they value their security and privacy.
So this was potentially devastating. One firm stopped doing business with her, despite a good working relationship.
Besting the bullies
Her experience is not unusual. In some cases it goes beyond misinformation, to comments that are malicious, or designed to hurt individuals or businesses. So what can you do about it?
One option is to get some help. Reputation.com is a company that helps businesses and individuals protect their privacy and manage their online reputation.
The Silicon Valley-based company was formed in 2006, and has customers in more than 100 countries. It won a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award in 2011. The venture-backed company does not release financial information, but founder Michael Fertik says the company grew 600% in just the last year.
"All of a sudden the message of being able to control some of your data was one that seemed to get some kind of response, and then it turns out that companies want it too.
"We're trying to put some of the toothpaste back in the tube, actually a lot of it, and also we're trying to prevent the rest of the toothpaste from gushing out of the tube."
In Ms Posoli-Cilli's case Reputation.com let the company know the suit was resolved, and helped them verify this by further searches.
Giving her a social media profile, and making sure the positives were promoted put the offending entry into context, pushing it farther down the search pages.
Ms Posoli-Cilli was hugely relieved.
"I paid a very small fee and got very, very big results."
She says that following the settlement her former employers are now amicable business rivals. And her company is going from strength to strength.
When you sign up, the first thing is to find out what there is out there about you, including information not on the open web.
"A lot of our IP [intellectual property] is around how to find out our Fiona Graham rather than another Fiona Graham. It's a hard problem to solve, it's called an entity collision problem, it's been called the John Smith problem, I think the NSA calls it the 27 Mohammeds problem."
That done, they work on protecting your reputation - and your privacy.
There are some things they won't do. Unfavourable blog posts can't be removed, the company will not attack other people on your behalf, and they don't make anything up.
The company says they can make sure, through the use of among other things search optimisation technology, that the positives are properly promoted.
In terms of privacy, they remove you from databases and block ad networks from harvesting your data.
Reputation.com is also behind two free tools for Facebook. Privacy defender checks privacy settings and suggest changes. uProtect.it encrypts anything you post on the social media site so anyone unauthorised can't see them - even Facebook.
When asked how the site is likely to react to being unable to access that data Mr Fertik says it's not clear. "There's a conversation going on".
There is also an ethical code.
"We actually won't even serve certain customers. We won't serve customers convicted of a violent crime, anyone even accused of harming a child."
Not everyone is so particular, according to Herb Tabin and Craig Agranoff, CBS News Tech Correspondents, entrepreneurs, and authors of the book Do It Yourself Online Reputation Management.
They were inspired to write the book in part because they were concerned that people who were not so internet aware were being taken advantage of.
"As the web gets more social this is only going to get more prevalent for people, as more and more information is being shared, more and more damaging information can also be shared," says Mr Agranoff.
"Most businesses don't realise that there's this entire virtual community taking place in their establishment, and they have no idea what's being said about them online.
"We felt there were so many charlatans who will slowly migrate over towards the reputation management field, and try and charge thousands of dollars a month."
They're quick to distance Reputation.com and Michael Fertik from the organisations they're referring to. "He's a very admirable guy in the field, he's got a good reputation.", says Mr Tabin.
So what can companies do for themselves?
Mr Tabin says it's not magic.
"In business and in life you're a brand, I think that it's important that you're proactive in the sense that you have to have info out there that you want people to see. You want to have a good part in forming your own reputation online."
He recommends keeping abreast of what people are saying, and responding quickly.
He gives the example of a restaurant that only found out that their first entry on review site Yelp was a picture of a cockroach, when someone came in and told them.
"I'm not saying go out there creating fake reviews, you actually have your customers start doing it. Explain to customers coming, could you please post something nice about us if you like the service."
The idea is that the more positive feedback there is about you, it will dilute the bad. But if you leave it till something bad happens, it could be too late.
"Especially restaurants and doctors," says Mr Agranoff, "It's too late when you botched somebody's surgery to say, oh, can you help get this stuff off me."
Both sides of the coin
Some negative comment is of course merited. But can you always trust the reviews you're reading? Some of the most well-known review sites have come under fire from both sides for offering businesses paid-for premium accounts that allow them to remove unfavourable entries.
Pushnote is a service that allows a community of users to post comments and "like" websites, using a browser plug-in that can be seen by other community members when they visit the site. Digital entrepreneur John Leaver founded the start-up in 2010.
"We felt that there were lots of unnatural restraints on comments on the web prior to Pushnote. You can't comment anywhere, when you do comment you're subject to editing from the site owners. You can't always trust the comments you're reading are genuine or unfiltered."
The site launched recently with the backing of Twitter uber-user Stephen Fry. Moderation is done by the community, with the most popular appearing highest.
"We felt that it would be great to turn the web into one big democratic comment platform, so that you remove all of these barriers so anyone could comment anywhere, it's just up to the users to rank those comments."
Despite concerns in some quarters that the service could provide a ready platform for spammers and malicious posters, Mr Leaver is confident that the way the site works means they are in a better position to deal this.
"We can track people wherever they comment around the web. Whereas for individual websites, users can jump on, make some kind of abusive comment and it's very difficult to deal with."
It seems unlikely that internet usage is going to decrease - so should we all, businesses and individuals, be more concerned about our online presence?
Craig Agranoff thinks so.
"I think online reputation management could become the next social media term where everyone's using it, everyone's saying they're doing it."
"If I had to predict the future, I think you're going to see hackers switching into the field, because they are the only ones that are going to be able to take down any site about you, even a government website. They're going to thrive in this type of world."
His colleague Herb Tabin agrees.
"Anyone can write anything about anyone, and if they know what they're doing they can be really damaging. The most damaging thing is a person with a lot of time and a lot of hate."
Reputation.com's Michael Fertik says that your reputation is "everything"
"Digital reputation is now your reputation, whether you like it or not. It's now the truth about you.
"We didn't vote on that fact, it just turned out to be true. The standard of conviction in the court of the internet is just to believe it enough to not take a risk on you."