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

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

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Take-down specialists

SEOs and other types of online reputation management companies don't have the wherewithal to remove content that's been posted by other publishers. But they do offer clients a variety of techniques that are aimed at achieving that goal.

For instance, if there's unfavorable information posted about a customer on a Web site or blog, ReputationDefender Inc. will take steps to have it eradicated, says Paul Pennelli, senior director of marketing and partnerships. The vendor typically starts by reaching out to a publisher to explain the challenges that the objectionable content is creating for ReputationDefender's client.

"We'll often find that common decency wins out and the publisher is willing to take the information down," says Pennelli. When that approach doesn't work, ReputationDefender might explore legal channels for having negative content removed, though Pennelli says that has occurred in only a handful of cases.

Other vendors have threatened publishers with violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which criminalizes the dissemination of copyrighted works.

Still, there are limits to what online reputation management providers such as ReputationDefender can accomplish. "We don't make claims that we can take down every piece of information off the Internet that customers find objectionable," says Pennelli.

Gaming the system?

Bottom line: SEOs and other online reputation management specialists help their customers' online content receive the highest possible ranking in Internet search results while aiming to conceal negative content that's been posted about them.

Are they gaming the system or simply conducting good business practices on behalf of their clients? Industry experts, analysts and online reputation management experts have mixed opinions.

"This is the Internet -- there are no rules written anywhere" about what can or can't be done, says Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch, the online investigative arm of Consumer Reports. He admits, however, that he was shocked when his consumer advocacy site appeared on a list of "problem sites" targeted by an SEO agency called Done SEO.

"If a newspaper or a consumer rights organization has done an investigation into a company and an SEO then does something to bury that information, that is harmful," says Brendler.

Ben Padnos, CEO of Done SEO, downplays the inclusion of ConsumerWebWatch.org in the problem sites list, saying the company is more focused on combating the damage done by "unchecked, unmoderated user-generated content sites" such as Ripoff Report and Complaints.com, which he claims enable competitors, disgruntled ex-employees, mean-spirited bloggers "or anyone else with a personal vendetta to wreak havoc on an individual or business."

Others warn that interfering with search results can backfire on companies. "My personal sense is that it's all fair game," says Aberdeen Group's Zabin. But if a company's customers believe it has used SEO services to bolster the results of Web searches about the company or its products, says Zabin, "that could lead to an erosion of customer loyalty."

But ReputationDefender's Pennelli says it's important to remember that search engines don't deliver perfect results and that the results themselves have to be put into context. Says Pennelli, "If there's information about a person that's 15 years old in a search engine result and it isn't relevant, should that be included?"

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at public relations firm Weber Shandwick, draws an analogy between SEO techniques and the Wikipedia model, where companies or individuals can edit what is written about them online. Companies that use SEO services "have to be willing to be totally transparent" about it, says Gaines-Ross, and shouldn't try to hide their use of such services from their customers or investors.

Rob Russo, president and CEO of DefendMyName.com, believes the ethics question has to be tied back to the clients that are being represented. His company screens prospective clients, in part by analyzing the history of complaints that have been lodged against a company or individual.

"If it's someone who's a convicted felon or a child predator, obviously we won't protect someone like that" or take them on as a client, says Russo.

Elixir Systems' Downhill says her company has stepped away from some potentially lucrative customer deals when Elixir determined that the potential client deserved its soiled reputation. For instance, Downhill recently declined a contract with a national fitness chain after a preliminary review of dozens of blogs and online forums revealed that the fitness chain applied "highly unethical, high-pressure" sales tactics upon would-be customers, she says.

Bob Waxman, the Kabbalah instructor who enlisted Elixir's SEO services to promote his book, says he doesn't see a problem with SEO. "It helps people such as myself who aren't Internet-savvy to optimize their exposure," he says.

And so the age-old battle goes on between the wide-open, anything-goes Internet and people who want, for whatever reason, to control their message. While SEO and online monitoring tools level the playing field a bit, the rogue element always comes back with even stronger methods. The SEO wars aren't over with yet.

"There are no secrets anymore," says Weber Shandwick's Gaines-Ross. "Everything about you is practically evergreen and lives forever."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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