Ever wish you could scrub embarrassing college pics from Facebook? Or the string of negative reviews about your small business that an embittered customer posted? Do you worry that prospective employers will see the youthful mug shot that you can’t get off the first page of your Google results?
As we increasingly live out our lives online, we’re finding that not only are there major downsides to all of that social media over-sharing—but we may have little control over the way we appear on the internet. A person who wants to do damage to your reputation will find few obstacles online, easily tarnishing your good name.
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Enter online reputation managers.
Part PR gurus, part tech experts, they specialize in providing online makeovers—often by burying negative search results and promoting content that accentuates a client’s desired image.
To find out more about these digital disaster fixer-uppers, we spoke to Michael Fertik, the founder of one of the world’s largest online reputation management companies—Reputation.com.
So what exactly does a reputation management specialist do?
Michael Fertik: Our customers range from moms and dads to Fortune 500 companies. And we try to give them maximum control possible over what people view about them online—whether it's information that they want others to see about professional history or info that they don’t want seen, like a medical past.
Why might someone need help managing a digital reputation?
The rise of the internet has given birth to a lot of good things ... and a lot of things that are not so good. Now your good name can end up in the hands of people you can’t identify—and who are in places you may not be able to point to on a map.
If someone says something negative about you or something true but old and obsolete—perhaps it’s that you were fired from your last job—these things can really damage your future. At the same time, your digital reputation also creates significant opportunities. If you aren’t taking advantage of what your reputation could be or hanging your digital shingle the way it deserves to be hung, people aren’t seeing your best foot forward.
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Why can’t someone handle his or her own online reputation?
The best analogy that I can think of is anti-virus software for your computer. There are probably only 25 guys on the planet who can do good anti-virus protection on their own because it requires deep technical expertise. We have dozens of engineers who work on each of our products, which are designed expressly to fix or enhance your digital reputation and profile.
That said, there are certain things that you should do on your own, like have a thoughtful, well-curated LinkedIn profile. And you should have a Twitter handle that is your name, not something like "ILovePizza," unless your job is in pizza.
What's the most common problem that you encounter?
People who don’t think they have a problem. They say, "I don’t post photos of myself, therefore the internet is fine for me." That’s actually short-sighted—the internet might be useful for you, but it isn’t working for you.
It’s not always about curing the negative—it’s about branding.
It’s obvious what's at stake when a company has bad reviews or a social media meltdown, but what’s at stake for individuals?
The internet can be quite vicious in the sense that someone in your personal or professional life who wants to do damage to you can be very good at it. A former spouse can go after your small business because of a divorce or former employees can try to destroy your life if you fire them.
But it matters even if you aren’t in the business of selling things. Every life transaction now begins with a search, and even in a good economy, prospective employers will be doing searches on you. The thundering silence you might hear is your best indication that your digital profile isn't doing the work it should.
Also, we're increasingly living in a pull economy—and people, employers and customers find you because of the internet. Let's say that you are a landscape architect. If you're talking about landscape architecture and you're identified with it in social media, you have a plausible résumé. But if someone looks you up, and finds someone else [with the same name] whose interest is kite surfing, that doesn’t do you any good. On the other hand, if all they can find is that you're interested in cooking, that’s not necessarily good, either.
So it’s not always about curing the negative—it’s about accentuating your positive truth and personal branding.
How difficult is it to erase something negative once it's online?
We don’t seek to erase. There are significant deficiencies in the law in this area—even a lawsuit doesn't work. But the good news is that if it is off page one of Google, it basically doesn’t exist.
So what goes into an online makeover?
We make sure that a client’s story—a professionally written biography that's not purple prose or over the top—shows up and dominates their profile. It could be five or 10 of the top things about them online—either items that we write in consultation with you and your résumé or things that already exist that we push up to the top.
How much of your work is reactive versus proactive?
Many of our clients come to us with a problem. I wish they’d come to us sooner because instead of the $5,000 it takes to cure the issue, it might have cost $200 to prevent it. But that’s not most of our clients—most want to be in front of the problem.
How can people keep themselves safe from cyber extortionists—people who promise to erase undesirable content for a fee, and then ask for more money later to keep it offline?
It's a common problem. There are actually websites that publish information that's in the public domain—but the definition of public realm has been stretched. So what was public in 1950, when you’d have to go to the courthouse and befriend the court clerk, is now something you can find while sitting at your computer.
These sites could still be doing something illegal by publishing the info and then charging to unpublish it—and the courts are trying to figure that out. Soon there will be some legal tools. But, right now, you either have to pay the guy or pay the sheriff to defeat him. And we aim to be the sheriff.
What can people do to safeguard their online reputations?
Set up a Google alert for yourself. Contribute things that are of professional interest, and do it occasionally. You don’t have to tweet every day—doing it a few times a month is a good idea, especially if it is relevant to what you do. And don’t use Facebook a lot; if you do, maximize your privacy settings. Also, don’t post a lot of photos to social media, in general, about your families. Basically, don’t over-share. If you don’t know who the joker is on your social media page, it’s you.