Online reputation management is hot -- but is it ethical?

I say 'controlling my message,' you say 'gaming the system'

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That's pay dirt for the client companies, since 95% of people who use search engines typically view the top 30 listings they find and disregard the rest, according to Chris Martin, owner of the online reputation management provider ReputationHawk.com.

If a search engine optimizer such as Elixir Systems, ReputationHawk.com or Buildtelligence determines through natural-language processing and other analytical techniques that there are multiple negative results in keyword searches about a customer, it will try to optimize more positive existing content, link to company-run blogs or even build out new Web sites with more favorable content.

But that can get pricey. A six- to 12-month campaign by Elixir can range from $15,000 to $100,000, depending on the complexity of the assignment and amount of negative content it's trying to suppress, says Downhill.

Customers are "absolutely horrified how much work they have to do to fix the results," says Downhill. "They figure they can just pay a fee like they would with a PR firm."

Still, SEOs aren't able to guarantee or quantify to the extent they can bury undesirable online content or place a favorable link high within a search listing. For instance, ReputationHawk.com's Martin says that it's extremely difficult to bump negative information that appears on Wikipedia.

"We might be able to push it down a few slots and use a positive customer testimonial to help," says Martin. "Google doesn't show quite as much favoritism to Wikipedia as it once had, but it's still really, really strong." (Calls to Google to comment for this story weren't returned.)

An ear to the ground

An entirely separate category of vendors such as Nielsen BuzzMetrics, Umbria and Cymfony Inc. provide non-SEO-related online reputation management services. These companies employ natural-language Ph.D.s and data mining experts to analyze consumer-generated media, such as blogs, forums, podcasts and comments to Web sites, to help clients determine what consumers are saying about them.

Cymfony's core technology is a natural-language processing application that was originally created years ago for government intelligence services and is now used to detect and analyze what people are saying about a company in the blogosphere, according to Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer for the vendor.

Umbria CEO Janet Eden-Harris points to work her company conducted on behalf of an agency that represented Nike. Around the time that Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2003, the shoe manufacturer was trying to decide whether to renew its sponsorship deal with the basketball star.

Although Umbria's research determined that there was "tons" of negative commentary about Bryant in the blogosphere during the height of the case, unfavorable content about Bryant among the company's target market -- young men -- was considerably lower. Nike eventually re-signed Bryant in 2005, and Eden-Harris is convinced that Umbria's analysis was a contributing factor.

Another set of vendors such as Visible Technologies, Radian6 and Buzzlogic Inc. provide customers with online dashboards to aggregate and monitor what consumers are saying about them in the blogosphere under subscription-based contracts, says Forrester's Kim.

Social media monitoring provider Radian6 provides its clients with a browser-based dashboard that helps them pinpoint where the most active conversations are taking place about them and who the key influencers are, says Chris Ramsey, vice president of business development.

Some of these dashboards make use of sophisticated algorithms to sift through content and rank results for customers. For instance, customers of London-based Reputica Ltd. use an algorithmically generated online dashboard to monitor and track what's being said about the company or brands online.

But the dashboard goes a step further -- it also scores whatever content it's tracking for a customer on a scale of negative 10 (most unfavorable) to positive 10 (most favorable) while allowing customers to see how the results are changing over time, says Reputica chairman Andrew Jordan.

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An online dashboard from Reputica
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