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VOL. 39 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 14, 2015

Restoring your online reputation is a task for experts. And it's expensive

By Jeannie Naujeck

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As a property manager, Mark Hill is used to putting out fires. But when a disgruntled tenant took to the Internet to flame him and his business, Hill was the one calling for help.

“He was bound and determined to try to wreck us online,” Hill says of the angry tenant.

“And so he proceeded to post all this stuff, on all of these sites all over the place. And it really was very overwhelming.”

Not only did the tenant post numerous bad reviews of Hill’s company, Tandem Realty, he created a whole website devoted to his issues with Tandem and its staff.

The result was that negative reviews of the company dominated the first page of results whenever anyone searched online for the company.

Like it or not, “Googling” a person or business is now one of the first things potential employers – or dates – do to find out more about them. That’s led to the rise of online reputation management services, which charge people to attempt to push any negative content down the list of Google search results, or at least off the first page.

Controlling what appears in online searches has gone from a niche business to a field with many players – some legitimate and some not.

The biggest are online services such as Reputation.com, which claims 1 million individual and business customers, and BrandYourself.com, which says it serves 500,000 people.

Any service that promises to remove negative content falls into the latter category, because cracking the code of how Google ranks web pages in search results isn’t an easy or quick task, and Google likes to keep moving the target.

For individuals, negative content lurking on the Web includes things like embarrassing photos, legal problems or past criminal charges that could affect whether they are considered trustworthy in real life.

Hill

Businesses often have to monitor and defend themselves against negative reviews that can dissuade potential clients from using their service.

That was Hill’s situation, in the extreme.

“People may have a bad press mention, or a bad review, or in some cases someone literally putting up a blog or website directly attacking them,” says JJ Rosen of Atiba, a Nashville-based consulting firm that provides clients like Tandem Realty with technology solutions ranging from software programming and network management to digital marketing and web design.

“With Mark, they literally took enough time to buy the domain and put up a website. And that was ranking highly on his name, so when you Googled it that’s exactly what would come up.”

To help Hill control the damage, Rosen’s team first tried to determine why the site was ranking highly. Then it developed a campaign to create and push to the top favorable, or at least neutral, content for Tandem Realty, thereby diluting the negative search results.

Atiba did this by creating websites, blogs, pages, images, directory entries and maps it hoped would rank higher than the negative tenant-created site (according to Google’s algorithm) and push it off the first page of Google results.

“For the most part, it’s just filling up with good content and knowing how to write the content in a way that Google likes,” Rosen explains.

“We’ll build a bunch of small websites that are indexed on that content and put them in different locations with different hosts that get higher rankings.

“It’s a process. It can take a long time and be expensive.”

JJ Rosen of Atiba, a Nashville-based consulting firm that helps control damage  of negative web attacks.

Online reputation management is a small subset of Atiba’s work performing search engine optimization (SEO) for their clients’ websites. Good SEO practices help individuals and businesses effectively manage how they are perceived online by influencing what information comes up first about them when people search the web.

But it’s a concern for so many people that Rosen has offered short workshops on reputation management to the general public through the University School of Nashville’s evening classes program.

And online search is not limited to Google.

Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple iPhones, is also a search tool. So are review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List and TripAdvisor, where people post about their experiences with restaurants, hotels and other businesses, and Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter.

Any site where someone can be named and talked about is potentially a source of negative – or positive – information. Large companies employ teams of SEO experts to monitor and try to control how information appears in search results. The primary goal is to “own” the first page of Google results.

BrandYourself started when one of its founders Googled himself and found a criminal with the same name was dominating his search results. When he looked for help to disassociate himself with the other man’s links, he was quoted tens of thousands of dollars.

“Reputation management was aimed at high-net worth people with big problems who could afford to fix it. We thought, there’s probably a whole market out there of people who have an issue but can’t afford to fix it, and even more people who don’t have some big issue but want to be more visible,” says Patrick Ambron, CEO of BrandYourself.

“People realize we live more and more of our lives online, and the first thing people do is look each other up.”

After three years, BrandYourself has grown to half a million users. It offers free advice and webinars on how to create and boost favorable content online, or users can pay the company to do it for them – build websites, set up social media profiles on a variety of platforms, and keep posting new content so they appear current and relevant to Google’s search algorithm.

“This isn’t rocket science, but the process of pushing down negative or irrelevant results takes a little bit of knowledge and a time commitment,” Ambron says.

“You have to create good content and consistently structure it well. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to help, but it’s the best way to try.”

Google prohibits users from trying to manipulate search results and penalizes them when they do. An online reputation management campaign can be long and costly – with no guarantees. The tactics may not work, or an adversary could keep putting out negative content to stymie any efforts to push it down.

And getting Google to remove content simply because you don’t like it is usually fruitless. Under very few circumstances will Google remove a web page from its search results.

Google will get involved in a case of copyright infringement. It also can intervene with “revenge porn,” in which someone posts compromising photos of another person, usually for retribution involving an ex.

In June, Google said it would remove all such results upon request of the victim.

In the case of Mark Hill and Tandem Realty, Atiba’s campaign eventually pushed the angry tenant’s site off the first page when searchers Googled him – although some of his bad reviews still appear on the high-ranking Yelp site.

And the criticism ultimately backfired. Hill says he’s actually gotten more business from clients who prefer that he take the heat from tenants rather than go through it themselves.

“Our job is to represent our client while being fair to the tenant, not worry about our reviews,” Hill points out. “But whenever it does reach a level like with that one guy, that’s when we really have to do what we need to do to manage that.”

And as for prospective tenants Googling the company before they rent, Hill doesn’t think that has hurt much either. Most people are now savvy enough to realize that things are often posted in anger, and can recognize when multiple bad reviews appear to be the campaign of a single person.

“It’s hard to forever live in a box,” Rosen adds. “If someone is just purposely out to get you, you may get to the point where you think, ‘Well, I’ll just have to do the best I can and not worry about it.’”

Rosen says he makes a point to tell clients that even the most sophisticated and sustained reputation management campaign may not work. Trying to push down a negative post can take a long time, cost a lot of money and still not get results.

If that happens, they may have to learn to live with it until time – or Google – drops it off the first page.

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