Burying the Bad: Repairing Online Reputations Means Walking a Fine Line

September 4, 2009
Philadelphia Business Journal

A negative review. A nasty rumor. An angry blogger or a social media impostor. Billions of bits of information litter the Internet, but it takes just one of these to sink a company’s reputation.

With consumers making the Web their primary resource for finding products and services, a businesses’ online image is more important than ever. But protecting that image is becoming increasingly difficult.

“It’s amazing how easy it is to look into somebody [online],” Chris Miles said. “And a lot of times there is information that’s both negative and not true.”

Miles is the CEO of Moorestown, N.J.-based technology consulting company Miles Technologies. In addition to handling IT support and Web development, it has become one of a growing number of online reputation managers; companies that monitor and maintain clients’ Internet identity.

The online reputation management industry developed in response to the recent surge of user-generated Web content. In its infancy, the Internet was an effective marketing platform where a company could easily distribute its message to millions of consumers with the click of a mouse. But as blogs, review sites, forums and social media have multiplied, citizens’ voices easily overwhelm corporate messages.

This democratization of the Web is largely seen as a positive for consumers. User-generated media can provide an unfiltered look at a company and its products. But it can become a nightmare for businesses.

“Sometimes a person takes it upon themselves to give the company a bad name,” said Miles. “It will show up high on the list because it’s on a popular blog, and a company could lose sales.”

When that happens, reputation managers come in to clean up the mess.

These online fixers employ a number of techniques to repair a company’s image, depending on the type of harmful user-generated media. But Miles Technologies’ public relations specialist Purna Virji said the goal is always the same: to bury negative information as far down the list of search engine results as possible.

“Once there’s something on Google, you can’t ever take it off,” she said. “But there are things you can do that will fill in the space with good, positive information.”

Virji, who handles Miles Technologies’ reputation management clients, creates new Web sites, posts testimonials on review sites, ghostwrites blogs and employs various other tactics to push damaging material off of the front page of search engines. She said that consumers researching a company rarely investigate past the first page of results.

“We will use an outreach campaign and promote online branding [and] use that strategic placement to push negative posts,” Virji said.

But at what point does good public relations turn into deception? A recent survey conducted by global market research firm Opinion Research Corp. indicated online product reviews influence the purchasing decisions of 84 percent of Americans. Another study by Rubicon Consulting said that online reviews are second in influence only to word-of-mouth publicity.

With consumers depending so heavily on user-generated feedback, there is an expectation that Internet search results are a true representation of the company, whether positive or negative. Reputation management techniques that tamper with searches and manufacturer favorable user reviews seem to disrupt this and therefore fall into an ethical gray area.

However, Miles argues that online reputation management is simply an extension of traditional public relations. His service gives companies a way to defend themselves from distorted rumors and false accusations that can permanently affect their operations.

“You have to remember that there are people behind these companies,” Miles said. “If the information is not true, the lies hurt people and cause damages.”

He added that, while there is no official policy on what information they will agree to bury, there are boundaries the company refuses to cross. Miles Technologies will not alter information pertaining to recent criminal convictions, business ethics violations and other similar offenses.

“We want to use these things for good,” Miles said.

Such moral standards are common among established reputation managers. Nevertheless, directly adjusting a company’s online presence remains a point of ethical contention. Virji said that anything she does to enhance a company’s image is factually based. Positive reviews are created from real customer testimonials and new Web sites are no different from traditional press releases.

But it is up to the individual company to determine how far it is willing to go.

Host Web sites for user-generated media expressed their distaste for such techniques, but acknowledged there is not much they can do to combat it.

“It’s not intrinsically wrong, but it’s definitely not encouraged,” said Jay Walsh, the head of communications for Wikimedia, the foundation that runs user-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Google Inc. spokesperson Jake Hubert echoed the sentiment, adding that search engines will detect questionable tactics.

“There’s no problem in creating positive content to combat negative content if done within the guidelines,” he said in an e-mail. “But if you use spammy and manipulative techniques … we may take action on it.”

Despite the ethical disputes, companies will need to learn to manage their online presence, because the collaborative, user-driven world of Web 2.0 is here to stay. In the latest report by marketing research company comScore, eight of the Top 10 most-visited Web sites in June were search engines, social media or product review sites.

As the marketing landscape changes, Erin Allsman of Philadelphia advertising agency Brownstein Group advised companies to take control of their Web presence and embrace user-generated media rather than fight it. She said it is much easier to maintain a positive reputation with Web users than to try to rebuild it in the future.

“Knowing your audience is the number one PR rule, and now it’s also the number one rule of online reputation management,” she said.