Today, I spoke to Michael Fertik and David Thompson, who are the authors of Wild West 2.0. Michael is the CEO of ReputationDefender, and David Thompson is the Chief Privacy Officer for the company. Note that ReputationDefender has been a previous sponsor of Personal Branding Magazine. In this interview, both Michael and David talk about why online reputation is important to the masses, tips to own your Google search results, and more.
The vast majority of Internet users are ordinary folks, not high-profile VIPs. So, why should everyone be concerned about their online image?
If there’s one thing that researching Wild West 2.0 taught us, it’s that everybody gets Googled–not just celebrities and VIPs. Almost everybody we talked to admitted using Google to search for their friends and co-workers, or knew that they had been Googled themselves. One personal story that didn’t make it in the book was of a female friend going on a first date only to find out that her date already knew her hobbies, interests, and family history. Pew Internet confirms our research; their recent study found that a majority of Americans admit searching for online information about their acquaintances. It’s scary how much information is out there and how many people are looking for it.
We live in a world where the fear of Big Brother has been replaced by the reality of hundreds of millions of “little brothers“ constantly using the Internet to spy on each other. Students use the Internet to search for personal information about their teachers; teachers look for information about parents; parents search Google for teachers; managers look for information about their employees; nosy neighbors dig for information about nearly everyone; and political partisans of all stripes dredge through search results for dirt about about their opponents. It is almost certain that somebody you care about has searched for your name on Google; the only question is what they found.
To take just one example, a study by Microsoft found that 79% of job recruiters use Internet searches and social media to find background information about job candidates, and at least 70% had rejected candidates based on what they found online. Similarly, a study of the top 500 universities found that a majority of admissions offices admit to using the Internet to find more information about applicants. Even if there’s no negative information about you online, your online image is a chance to add more positive information to your resume.
How has the technology of the Internet radically changed the rules of reputation? How have online community norms aggravated the problem?
The Internet has taken a wrecking ball to the rules of reputation:
- Reputation used to be a two-way street: if somebody wanted to gossip about you, they had to risk their own reputation by spreading it. Now, they can write an anonymous comment on thousands of sites. Often, the author of a false or malicious comment or blog can ride off into the night with no trace left behind.
- Reputation used to be local: for most people, reputation was shaped by the people in the surrounding community, and did not spread far beyond it. Now, the Internet allows anonymous comments to spread at the speed of light to the edges of the world: now, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Tombstone (Arizona) or Tomsk (Russia)–you can write comments that will be seen worldwide.
- Reputation used to be temporary: memories of reputation would fade. Now, everything that goes online is instantly indexed, cached, and often permanently archived. Sites like Archive.org automatically create a complete copy of every website in existence, limited only by the pace of change online. If there was any question left about the permanence of online reputation, it was settled by recent announcement that the Library of Congress would permanently archive every public tweet made on Twitter.com since 2006.
The problem is made worse by search engines like Google. Without search engines, most false and negative online information would just disappear into a tumbleweed desert. But search engines are designed to find any reference to your name and bring it to the top of a search. In the past, gossip would end with a classroom note tossed into the trash; now, Google finds the electronic equivalent of classroom notes from years ago and displays them to the world. The more juicy and salacious the note, the more likely it is to rise to the top of Google’s results.
The worst part is that Google’s top search results often focus on just one part of your life–whatever sites gets the most clicks and links rises to the top of a search for your name. Even if the information is true, it is often focused on just one event or one aspect of your personality. A searcher looking for information about you will often believe that this is who you are. The problem is compounded by the fact that web searchers have such a short attention span: a recently Cornell study found that 79% of Google users click on the first three results, out of thousands of relevant links returned. The impact is that just three links picked by Google can make or break your reputation. In reality, you are a far more balanced and nuanced person than just a handful of search results.
To add insult to injury, the technology of the Internet lacks any sense of morality or justice: search engines are nothing but computer code running on thousands of machines. Online gossip about you might be true or false, but to a search engine it’s just raw data to be fed into a ravenous algorithm. This faceless, soulless machine picks 10 websites to display based on how many clicks and links they get—not based on whether they are true or false, fair or unfair. It’s time for you to stand up and take control.
Let’s focus on intentional reputation damage. Why do people attack each other online? How can understanding common motivations for an online attack help potential victims?
People attack each other online for all the same reasons that people attack each other offline–but online attacks are an order of magnitude more dangerous because of the power of anonymity and permanence. Online, somebody on the far side of the globe can attack you just because they have different political or social beliefs. And, thanks to the power of Google to find isolated bits of content about you, their attack can quickly rise to the top of a search for your name and stay there forever.
Online attacks are also worse because of the social distance that the Internet creates. It’s hard for most people to make an unprovoked insult to their victim’s face. But online, it is very easy for somebody to type harsh or mean words without realizing that they are affecting a real person.
Often, resolving online attacks relies on psychology and empathy. Sometimes it is possible to figure out why you are being attacked, and come to an offline resolution. If you understand some of the most common causes for online attack–such as envy, jealousy, and revenge–you can often understand how to treat the underlying cause that triggered somebody to attack you.
Similarly, you must understand the psychology of the crowd to be effective. Just like in the Old West, a “digital vigilante squad” on the new digital frontier can rush to judgment and start to implement its own form of “justice.” If you find yourself falsely accused by this kind of e-mob, you need to understand how to calmly and rationally present evidence that you are not the guilty party. Otherwise, you risk permanent serious damage to your reputation.
What are the ways to help victims of online reputation damage correct false information and restore their good name?
The best we can recommend to anyone is to build powerful defenses before it is too late. A “Google wall” of positive content and sites you control will keep future false information and attacks out of the top 10 results in Google, and also stop the self-reinforcing cycle of negativity. All too often, once negative or salacious information gets into the top 10 results, it starts to attract more attention and links just because of the human tendency to focus on gossip and drama. From there, the content gets copied and promoted more and more until it takes over the top results for your name.
One first step toward building is to build a network of positive content. It can help even to do very simple things like registering your name on sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites that tend to rank highly in search engines. Use these sites to create basic profiles and link these sites to each other. If available, you should also register .com addresses related to your name–FirstnameLastname.com, Firstname-Lastname.com, and others. Sites that contain your name in the domain name often rank highly in Google searches. You can often use free or inexpensive services to set up simple blogs or profiles on these sites, and also link them to your other content.
If possible, you should also increase your visibility in third-party sites. Often, local newspapers and blogs rank highly in search engines, and writers are almost always looking for stories. If you can get news coverage (or even just a quote) in one of these outlets, it will often rank highly in searches for your name. If friends or co-workers link to your sites from their blogs, that will also help to push your content to the top of a search for your name.
If there is false information about you online, some responsible website owners will be happy to work with you to correct it or remove it. Try sending a very calm, polite email that explains the facts without accusing anyone of misconduct or attacking the webmaster. If the webmaster refuses to change anything, then you need to make sure that web searchers find the truth first. You can engage many of the same tactics as listed above, or follow the steps outlined in Wild West 2.0′s chapter on recovering from online attacks.
Can you give us management techniques for small business owners and professionals?
Small businesses and professionals like doctors and lawyers are at particular risk; a majority of consumers now use Internet searches to look for reviews and ratings before hiring, and they often find anonymous reviews left by a dissatisfied customer rather than a representative sample of reviews. But many professionals and small business owners have done nothing to protect themselves. One study of doctors found that more than 90% of primary care physicians have never done anything to address their online images.
One of the biggest problems that professionals face is that just one dissatisfied client can ruin their online reputation, even if 99.9% of their clients are fully satisfied. Most professional clients don’t leave reviews for good work; for example, one study found that no primary care physician had more than eight reviews in a nationwide professional review site. That means that negative feedback will be disproportionately featured. The most powerful solution is to encourage satisfied customers to review you on sites relevant to your profession; often, a simple reminder is all it takes to encourage your best customers to review you well in addition to sending referrals. Be cautious not to go too far; do not give any reward to customers who review you unless you have familiarized yourself with the FTC guidelines concerning compensated endorsements.
Small businesses face similar challenges. There are tens of websites that allow anonymous consumers to vent complaints about businesses. Some consumer complaints on these sites are genuine and constructive. But others are false or exaggerated. And others still are lies left by competitors, bitter former employees, and others who have no connection at all to your services. Thanks to a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the sites that post these defamatory comments are usually held immune in court. Some webmasters will help correct outright lies, but some “complaint” sites have been accused of extorting businesses by offering to remove false information only for a fee. Often, the only thing you can do is try to set the record straight by establishing your own online presence that is more prominent than the lies.
Small businesses can often engage with consumers in ways that will help their business and their online image. Setting up a social media presence (through sites like Facebook and Twitter) is often a great first step toward controlling your small business image online. Starting a blog about relevant community or business issues can also raise your profile while helping to limit the harm caused by false information online. For many small businesses, effective defense will require calling in our company, ReputationDefender; your time is better spent building your business than trying to match the image control technology built up over years of R&D by professional engineers. But every small business can get started free with simple online tools like a Facebook page and blog.
Michael Fertik is the founder and CEO of ReputationDefender, the world’s first comprehensive online reputation management and privacy company with customers in over 50 countries. He is the co-author of Wild Wild West 2.0. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Michael serves on the advisory board of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition. He has appeared on Dr. Phil, the Today Show, Good Morning America, the CBS Early Show, 20/20, and Fox, and has been featured in publications including The New York Times, USA Today, Forbes, BusinessWeek, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Redwood City, California.
David Thompson is general counsel and Chief Privacy Officer of ReputationDefender. He is the co-author of Wild Wild West 2.0. He is a graduate of Yale University and Stanford Law School. His expertise ranges from founding his first Internet business in 1997 to advising seed-stage startups to a clerkship at the Supreme Court of the United States. He lives in Los Angeles.