Online Reputation Management or Madness

When you type the word “reputation” into search engines, the pages fill up with companies that make promises to redeem your online reputation as if they were the new digital saviors. These companies all claim to have secret software or some highfalutin technology. One even goes so far as to say that search engines “like” their technology. I wonder if the same search engines like Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food– I know I do.

Online Reputation Management (or ORM as the industry professionals and pioneers have coined it) is no different than snake-oil salesmen who hawked tonic water in the Wild West. Even back then in the olden days, as my mother would say, they used the same marketing strategy of a secret ingredient. Take Burger King and their secret sauce: we all knew it was just mayonnaise with French dressing but society bought into the advertising and ate the Whopper. Today people are desperate to rid cyberspace of their negative information, and are buying into the great hype known as online “suppression.”

Most webmasters, bloggers and anyone else with a little digital real-estate, post information to make money. Your information– good, bad or untrue– serves one purpose, and that is to be the curiosity that attracts an advertising click. This “curiosity” runs the gamut from a onetime mug-shot from a DUI, to the photo of your drunken kid at spring break. These negative, embarrassing and unfortunate displays of human error tend to propagate quickly in the digital world. We call it “viral,” but we somehow forget the true meaning of the word. The person who is faced with that online scar of negative information, not only falls prey to those who propagate the information for advertising, but also to ORM companies which promise to conquer the negative information. To a certain degree, ORM companies are like lawyers– we need them when we are at our most vulnerable, and will pay anything to resolve the problem. But, just like with lawyers, the results are not guaranteed.

Years ago, I jumped on the ORM bandwagon offering digital absolution of negative information via suppression. However, I quickly discovered the truth that online suppression only works if it done continuously. I realized that online deception was the only way to combat negative information, but that is a topic for a different article. Think of online suppression as though you were putting cologne or perfume on before a date. It masks the true odor but soon the effects wear off. Online suppression is the same: while the work is being done, the negative information falls down the ladder of the search engines, but over time, the stench climbs back up to its perch on page one. In the great words of Meatloaf: “There ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”

I have been contacted by many people who feel that their lives have been destroyed because of a digital smirch they have no control over. Most of the inquiries come from good people who made stupid mistakes, which ten years ago would have been relegated to a skeleton in the closet. But in our technical age, the hinges of the closet have been removed, and there is no hiding mistakes or past transgressions. Personal transparency is the price we pay for free online information, blogs and social sites.

Today, we need to consider fighting the internet just like a gunfight at the O.K. Corral where the bloggers and webmasters are the outlaws. The only difference, is that the weapons they use are websites, and the bullets are your information. The inevitable question is what are we to do if we have no control over our information? Should we contact a website directly and request that they take down the unwanted information? This is dangerous because it could backfire, and the request itself could be the subject of a new blog post which can spread a hundred fold. Or does one fall at the mercy of an ORM company which makes more promises than political candidates. Well, this privacy expert with over twenty years of experience adamantly says no!

Until a better solution comes along, I suggest you learn to use the same digital weapons that are used against you. Either way, do not believe the madness!

by Frank M. Ahearn

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