The other day I really wasn’t paying much attention to the AM news station in my car until I heard a commercial for a web-based company imaginatively branded Reputation.com. I got to wondering about this kind of service, and when I typed "reputation management" into a search engine I was taken aback to see more than 10 million results. It turns out that it is much more than a new public relations specialty.
Your reputation, in the online context, is a blend of what you've done (what sites you've visited, what you've bought, what's in your email) and who you are (personal and business data available online). This is the area reputation management companies deal with. Let me explain.
First there was dirt, and then there was the Internet, and then there was social media (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest). Even if you don't understand how social media works, like my mom, you understand that it exists as a means of sharing information with other human beings. In the case of your seemingly unimportant reputation, bear in mind that on the Internet, nothing you say or do there ever disappears. It’s all chiseled in granite—or should I say, digitized and offered up to the web, uncensored, at the speed of light and forever more. And this goes for everyone else, as well.
What companies like Reputation.com and the scores of others out there do are look all over the web and find what's being said about you, or what you've said about yourself, report back to you on the results, and (for some products they offer) generate good content that outranks the bad content. You can imagine that this would be pretty useful if you were a business and you thought there might be negative reviews on Yelp, or people bad-mouthing you in online forums, or misinformation being spread about you on Twitter. But it might also help you identify personal data that you don't want online (like how much you paid for your house), or those pictures of you drunk with your hair full of ketchup at a frat party. Remember that? No? And the more years you've been online, the more stuff like that is out there, lurking.
Generating the good content is trickier and has come under fire when it's badly done. The New York Times reported on the plethora of fake good reviews on sites like Amazon, Tripadvisor, and Yelp, mainly written by individuals looking to make a few bucks. Regular forum users are quick to spot a new account created solely for the purpose of writing a glowing review of a company or product. And anyone on Twitter is all too familiar with the spam bots that start following you the second you mention a brand name, begging for your attention.
If you're going to protect your good name, or your even better brand online, start with some simple rules:
- Don't post stupid stuff (see above about everything living forever on the Internet). That includes embarrassing pictures and caffeine-fueled rants. Also, be careful not to succumb to SIWOTI (Someone Is Wrong On The Internet) syndrome, which will cause you to stay up all night arguing with people and using bad language.
- If you find negative things written about you/your business, respond to them as professionally as possible.
- If you find personal information about you posted, request to have it taken down—again, as professionally as possible. Reasonable requests are responded to more than twice as frequently as the ones written in ALL CAPS with lots of exclamation points.
- Don’t make up good stuff to counteract the bad. It will come back to bite you.
- Do engage in productive activities to raise your profile in a positive way. Use that crazy social media to express (reasonable) opinions, interact with customers and partners, find communities of like-minded people or peers, and present yourself as a self-respecting denizen of the Internet—and the world. You’ll be glad you did.
Laurel Sutton is a partner and cofounder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.
[Image: Flickr user Paul The Pollen]