We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Negative online reviews and unsavory — or untrue — blog posts can haunt businesses and individuals. Keeping tabs of your online presence may be pretty straightforward for most people, but a growing number of companies and public figures are outsourcing the task to tech and PR companies eager to meet the demand. We find out what “online reputation management” entails and get tips for managing your own online presence.
- Graeme Wood contributing editor, The Atlantic.
- Brian Patterson partner, Go Fish Digital
- Jim Harper director of Information Policy Studies, Cato Institute; author "Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood"
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, a few words can ruin your reputation online. Imagine typing your name into a search bar and immediately seeing words such as fraud or assault, or finding that your restaurant's most prominent Yelp review mentions food poisoning in all caps.
MR. MARC FISHERA simple search online can have searing effects in the real world, devastating job prospects or plunging a business into disrepute. That's why some tech companies like Reputation.com now advertise a way out with online reputation management services that they claim will clean up your name online. Joining me to look at how these services work and to explore how much control you can ultimately have over your identity online are Jim Harper. He's the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute.
MR. MARC FISHERBrian Patterson is an online reputation management professional and a partner at Go Fish Digital, a -- an Internet marketing and online reputation management firm in Ashburn, Va. And joining us by phone from Norway is Graeme Wood. He's a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine. He ran a recent article in New York Magazine titled "Scrubbed" about the practices of an online reputation company.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd, Graeme, perhaps we can start off with you. This was a bit of reporting that began with some information you learned online about an old friend of yours from way back, a guy named Phin Upham, who is he and what was he up to?
MR. GRAEME WOODAs far as I knew, Phin Upham was just one of my classmates who I had lost touch with. But I found out sort of the old-fashioned way, just by reading the newspaper, that he was involved in some -- or his family was involved in hiding money from the IRS, and they were being prosecuted, and ultimately his mother was convicted of that by the U.S. attorney in New York. So, already, he had his name associated, in his Google profile online, with criminal activity.
MR. GRAEME WOODSo after a while, I was just watching the news and then finally just setting up a Google Alert to find out what was happening with him. I started to see a range of odd press releases that started to come through, not talking, of course, about the crime, but talking only about the good things he had done: being appointed to the boards of different editorial boards of different magazines, being praised for his philanthropic work.
MR. GRAEME WOODAnd the more I dug, the more I realized that this was a concerted effort and he had hired, most likely, a reputation management company to clean up a really ugly-looking Google profile.
FISHERAnd these suddenly positive, wonderful things that were being said about him were things that were popping up pretty high on Google results, right?
WOODWell, normally they wouldn't be because they were press releases that had been put out, it turned out, by entities that, before he hired this company, most likely, didn't even exist. So the magazines that had been appointing him to their editorial boards weren't real magazines.
WOODThey were entities that had been invented and websites created for the magazines just so they could have press releases saying that Phin Upham has been appointed to their editorial board or magazines about philanthropy that had existed in websites that had existed only so that they could put out a press release that said that he was named philanthropist of the month for December of 2011 or whenever. So it was really a very complicated scheme, and...
FISHERSo, essentially, it was a web of fraud designed to cover a different web of fraud that -- and this was done for him at considerable cost by a reputation management firm that you then went and found and met with.
WOODYeah, that's right. So the company that he seems to have engaged -- and, of course, the firm won't comment, and he won't comment, so we can't be sure that he did so, but that firm did tell me that their starting rate was really about 10 grand a month, and that's gone on for a few years now. So you can do the math. It's a huge amount of money, if he's paid them to do this, to put together -- in all, I found 33 websites that appear to have been orchestrated just to rescue the online profile of someone who, in his case, wasn't even convicted of a crime.
WOODIt's just that if you Google his name, you quickly find out that he was arrested, that the U.S. attorney put out press releases and that his mother was convicted and is now on probation.
FISHERWell, that's a pretty extreme case, and we'll get into how aberrant that actually is. On this Tech Tuesday, we're talking about reputation management, and we welcome your calls at 1-800-433-8850, or email us at email@example.com. Let us know how you maintain your online image. How careful are you about the information that you allow on the Web? Have you Googled yourself lately, and what did you find?
FISHERAnd is what's there embarrassing enough that you might want to take action to change your public view? Let's ask Jim Harper from Cato Institute. How -- obviously, this -- people are concerned enough about their online reputations that this industry has developed from out of nowhere. Is this going to be a lasting part of the landscape in the tech world?
MR. JIM HARPERI think it probably is. This is a development in online culture that is here to stay. Graeme Wood's article illustrates quite nicely that you weave a tangled web when you practice to deceive, and he's untangled a web that's particularly interesting. But, yes, from the ordinary individual through the small business, the large business, to the multinational corporation, everybody has, in some sense, an interest in what's being said about them online in this great global community.
MR. JIM HARPERSo there will be people who hire professionals to manage that reputation. I think the story also illustrates that there's really no substitute for good behavior. Your bad deeds are found out ultimately. You can work as hard as you can to suppress bad information, but generally it'll tend to get through. But though in the short term and in some cases, maybe somebody will be able to suppress relevant and important information, and that's where you might actually ultimately get into fraud types of issues.
FISHERBrian Patterson, I'm sure you would agree that the best defense against a bad reputation online is not to put the bad things out there in the first place. But when those things do appear, your business exists to help people manage that. How much of what you do is telling, you know, the true story about someone as opposed to what's already out there, and how much of it is having to massage the bad stuff and make it seem better than it actually is?
MR. BRIAN PATTERSONWe rarely massage the bad stuff. It's more focusing on the positive that they're already doing or encouraging them to do positive, because in the case of Phin, which you're talking about now, if he was spending, let's say, 10k a month, as Graeme stated, he could have done a lot of great philanthropic work with that money and worked with PR to really get that highlighted so that he had a true profile of himself.
MR. BRIAN PATTERSONWhen people search, the negative stuff might still come up, but it'd also showcase that he's a good Web citizen rather than what turned out to be, which is kind of fraud and more fraud.
FISHERAnd, Graeme, as you unraveled the web of fraud surrounding your erstwhile friend, was there a point where it became clear to you that this online reputation defender company was actually, in a way, making it -- things worse for their clients?
WOODOh, yeah. Pretty soon after I discovered that there was a company that was actually tangling up its web, it was clear that as soon as it was revealed in my article or elsewhere, then it would be even worse than, I think, even worse than if he had never hired the company at all. In fact, the founder of the company said to me very clearly that this was a nightmare scenario to have a client's online PR strategy revealed.
WOODAnd the fact that he had hired a company to clean up his name rather than, as the other guests have said, done it the old-fashioned way just by doing good deeds, to have that discovered is -- it really puts you even deeper in the reputational hole than when you began.
FISHERSo, Brian, walk us through a prototypical case. If an individual comes to you, and maybe they've discovered in the process of searching for a job that some unfortunate behaviors earlier in their lives have popped up at the top of the Google search, what can you tell them you can do to help?
PATTERSONSo they have a lot of options available to them. Generally, what we start with is what is already out there about you that's positive. So if -- in your scenario, if this person is just finding out this now, they're probably not that savvy in terms of being active online. And so they may not have social profiles, which tend to rank very well for names, and they may not have their own website or a blog.
PATTERSONSo we start with maybe what is out there. Do they have any positive articles? Are they on any boards or participate in any charities? And then we work with them to help them develop a Web presence. So, you know, get active on Facebook and LinkedIn and Quora and all the different social media websites that Web users like and where you can add value to existing communities.
FISHERAnd when you -- when there is someone who does have an extensive social media profile and perhaps has, you know, been pictured drinking heavily in photos on Facebook -- I'm sure that's a fairly common scenario -- is there anything that you can do other than put that positive stuff higher up into Google's algorithm?
PATTERSONSure. So Google's algorithm is based on links. And so the more links that go to a piece of content, the higher it will rank in the search engine. And that was the original algorithm. It's grown to factor in social signals like Facebook likes and tweets and that sort of thing. But ultimately what it comes down to is if you want something to rank higher, you need more websites and more quality websites pointing to that positive piece of content.
HARPERThis is really interesting stuff in the -- maybe in the narrow world of search on the Internet because there is a team at Google that tries to control link spam, what they call link spam, where people are trying to generate better search results. And there's going to be a sort of continual arms race, if you will, to try to bring people into -- in -- the good search results in front of the public and suppress other search results.
HARPERMeanwhile, Google is trying to do the best they can to serve, I suppose, accurate or maybe public-pleasing search results, whatever those may be. It's a very interesting technical battle that will go on for quite some time.
FISHERAnd presumably it's in Google's interest to have that original material, which was up there for a reason, to have it remain fairly prominent. So are they constantly battling against a company such as yours and trying to defeat your efforts?
PATTERSONThat's one way to put it. Salacious material tends to attract a lot of attention and clicks, and Google interprets that as interesting to the Web user, and so they tend to present that information higher. So it's a battle not only of links, but also they -- you'll hear them often talk about user engagement, and they want the user to be very engaged with the search results. And if they're not engaged with them, then it means they're poor results. And you'll see that users are often engaged in something that's fairly negative.
FISHEROn the other hand, I'm sure there's a role for online reputation defending companies for people who have really done nothing wrong. I was looking the other day, checking out the reputation of a contractor I was considering dealing with. And the reviews online were overwhelmingly positive for this guy, except for one that was just devastating and just accused him of every bad thing you could possibly imagine. Now, I haven't spoken to the guy, but I would imagine he's really bothered by that one terrible review. What can he do about that?
HARPERI actually have a contractor who has the same thing. We might be talking about the same guy.
HARPERThey are -- you know, Friday afternoon, he leaves the job. The client expected it to be done, but he's got more to do on Monday. Meanwhile, over the weekend, bad review comes in, and he's incensed that this thing's out there. When people search for this information, it's there. That's going to be a persistent problem, and what it really argues for, unfortunately, is that consumers of this information -- you and me -- have to consider that, and we have to balance it.
HARPERI found my old habit has been that if I find one negative review of a restaurant on Yelp, I go, oh, well, then I'm not going to go there. It turns out every restaurant has a negative review.
FISHEROn Earth. Right, exactly.
HARPERAnd so we just have to consume information more carefully and realize that some people are highly critical. Some people make mistakes. We're going to have to treat this online information with more skepticism generally, the good reviews and the bad reviews.
FISHERAnd is there a place in the reputation defense world, Brian Patterson, for efforts to get the originators of such material to take it down? Do you ever do that kind of approach?
PATTERSONWe'll work with companies if they knew who the individual is and they think that they can re-establish a working relationship with that person. Most sites will allow you to edit or take down your reviews. So in the case of your contractor, if they could rebuild that relationship there and it's on a website that would allow them to edit or remove that review, they would have an opportunity to improve that rather than having to go the hard way, which is trying to suppress those reviews, which can be really difficult.
HARPERThere have been some policy proposals arguing that a person who's been unfairly tarred by a review or some other comment should be able to notify the website and have the website take it down. But those actually require the website operators to become sort of judge and jury on what's the truth, what's accurate in a given situation. That's very hard to do when we have comments of huge scale. Can a reputation provider like Yelp actually go in and investigate disputed facts and things like that? And so I think, ultimately, it's probably a bad idea that's well intended.
FISHERLegally and from a policy perspective, the Internet is just wholly different from every form of information publication we've known prior to this where publishers had responsibility for what they published. And today, we don't have that.
HARPERWell, it's a mixed bag, actually. Now, in the early years when people didn't really understand how it works, anonymity was the norm. Comments were posted somewhere and they might be outrageous, but you can't figure out who they were. There's a law called The Communications Decency Act. A provision of which -- most of it was struck down by the Supreme Court, but a provision of it protects the publishers of information from liability so that comment boards can exist.
HARPERIf you didn't have that protection from liability in the law, any website that hosted comments would be so in fear of legal liability that they might shut down their comment board. So it's a really important protection.
FISHERWhich is not that outrageous, I mean, given that's how letters to editor have worked in newspapers and magazine since the dawn of printing.
HARPERIt's true, though we're a little bit passed the era where every letter -- every comment could be reviewed the way letters to the editor, I think. And it's an opinion that could be debated that we're better off with a more robust and sometimes unfair debate in online comment boards than we are in carefully...
HARPER...moderated letters to the editor. Yeah.
FISHERLet's hear from Reese in Washington. Reese, you are on the air.
REESEHey. Thanks for having me. So I think this discussion and the listeners could really benefit if the guests would discuss and define the Streisand effect. I think it's a pretty fascinating phenomenon.
PATTERSONSure. So the Streisand effect dates back several years to when someone was trying to publish pictures of her house.
FISHEROf Barbara Streisand's house.
PATTERSONYes, yes. And she put up a big fight about not wanting those images posted. And because of that, it spread everywhere. And so there are more -- it's in more places than ever it would have been if that one single outlet would've published it. And in Phin's case, which Graeme documented is the case of that as well. He, you know, the issue is much bigger now because of what he did.
FISHERAnd so, Graeme, obviously, your story gave Phin's poor choices vastly more publicity than they'd ever had before. Have you heard from him or from the company that tried to defend his reputation?
WOODNo. I haven't heard from either one of them. You know, I would say that if you Google his name, you will find my story. You'll still find many, many other websites that were put up on the Web by the company, though. So, you know, although the Streisand effect is something that's well documented, we've seen it many times over and over again, we shouldn't be too quick to assume that a website that tells the truth is going to win out.
WOODGoogle is very, very good at doing what it does. And given that Phin's name has been in Businessweek and has been in The New York Times, those sites are going to be pretty enduring on the list of Google hits. But, you know, I think on the first page of hits, it wouldn't surprise me if you found hits that were false. So that's what $300,000 might be able to buy you.
FISHERWell, when we come back after a short break, more of your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's hear from you about how careful you are about the information you allow on the Web and how you maintain your online image. That's coming up after a short break on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo and we are talking about managing your reputation online on this Tech Tuesday. We're talking with Graeme Wood, who is a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine, Jim Harper, who's director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, and Brian Patterson, who is an online reputation management professional at Go Fish Digital in Ashburn, Va.
FISHERAnd, Brian, we have tweets from Jake, who says, "I share a name with a high schooler who asked Kate Upton to his prom on YouTube. I can live with that." But then Nicole tweets, "There are just enough people with my name for me to hide among." So there is this phenomenon of being confused with or perhaps hiding behind the name of someone who shares your name. Do you run into that much? Is it something that could be useful in defending a reputation?
PATTERSONYeah, absolutely. So I'm Brian Patterson, and I -- there are a lot of me out there. So my issues are fairly diminished. You know, it's interesting. A lot of our calls that come in are from people with unique names. Just by the nature of the business, you can hide behind other people if have a common name.
FISHERAnd so are there times when you conversely find yourself tarred by someone who shares your name who's been up to no good?
PATTERSONWe haven't encountered that too often primarily because they can generally distinguish themselves from those types of things.
HARPERBad data is a helpful protection for privacy. So having -- sharing a similar name with someone is -- keeps you a little bit obscure. Now, I have -- there's a minister named Jim Harper, whose reputation, I'm sure, I benefit from once in a while. (laugh) But I do things in my personal life that help keep information about me obscure.
HARPERFor example, I'll use somebody else's phone number at the grocery store to get the discounts so that the grocery store doesn't develop a good set of data about my behavior because I've decided I wanna keep that to myself while still enjoying those benefits. So it's another example of obscure...
FISHERSo do you use the phone number of someone you don’t particularly care for or you do you just make one up or...
HARPERWell actually, I use my parents' old phone number which is still registered to the system. They -- whatever grocery it is must think that they're wonderful, proper-behaving people in California. But when they come to Washington, D.C., they do nothing but buy cases of beer.
FISHERLet's hear from Stephan in Silver Spring. You are on the air.
FISHERYes, hello. Go ahead.
STEPHANYes. I'm a general contractor in the Washington, D.C., area, and this exact situation happened. And basically, I lost my business, I mean, completely lost my business because of a complaint. And I hired an attorney.
FISHERBecause of one complaint?
STEPHANYes. It was posted on TheSqueakyWheel. And so I hired an attorney, and we found out that this person who fired me is (unintelligible) someone else with the work. They used my design. They used my permit. And so we confronted them about this, and what happened is they took off the complaint right away because they were very risky out of a lawsuit which we would have won easily. So what happened is they took off the complaint from SqueakyWheel.
STEPHANBut other places like (word?) and other places picked it up. So basically, it's really, really hard to clean off this complaint even though the people who posted it won't claim because they are afraid of the lawsuit. So my question is, how do you address this issue. It's been a mechanism of cleaning up this complaint. And first of all, why would people want a search engine would exist that would pick up this complaint without any notification like the -- yeah, maybe 30 or 40 different places that they picked up this complaint in the posting. I have no idea why...
FISHERRight, it takes on a life of its own.
FISHERRight. Jim Harper.
HARPERWell, this does illustrate how very serious it can be, although we don't know the facts of the caller's case. But I believe he's sincere, and it can have very serious effects on a small business person if something like this happens. What do you do? It's very difficult, especially where there are smaller, less consequential but still meaningful sites that scrape information off the original site.
HARPERSo here, a piece of negative information went up on SqueakyWheel and then got propagated out further. Unfortunately, what you have to do is trust that good information about you will get out there and that it will counter the bad information. People should be aggressive in monitoring what is said about them online, if you're a small business person or an individual, setting up a Google Alert so that you'll learn about things said. It's important to respond very quickly.
HARPERTake on -- put out a public persona of your own that has truthful information that is reliable, not anything -- not a Potemkin image but actually who you are and what you're about. And that will help people discover the good information, though there may always be some bad information out there about you.
STEPHANI - could I make another quick comment?
STEPHANI have talked to many, many fellow contractors and actually people who own 30, $40 million businesses. And actually, the new practice says that if you think that there is a situation, the client just paid them off because it's a lot - it's like a cost of doing business. It doesn't matter if that complaint (word?) just pay them off and reimburse them because this quick comments could destroy a 20-year business that was functioning properly.
STEPHANFor 20 years. And you are done. You are finished. You are gone.
FISHERWell, there was a case last fall in Virginia where a contractor sued a woman for defamation after she wrote a negative Yelp review. So, Brian, at what point does litigation become a solution to these online reputation problems?
PATTERSONIt's an option if there's a clear case of liable or defamation. The interesting thing about that is with Yelp, it's an American-based company, and it's easy to track down who left the review so you can file a suit against them. In some cases, there are review websites that are hosted overseas. And so you can try to bring a suit against them, but it's very difficult.
PATTERSONThe interesting thing that you can do with that is if you can get a judgment -- from a judge saying that it's a false review and prove it, Google will take it out of the index. So while that site may not take it down, no one can find it in Google, thus, essentially making it invisible.
FISHERYeah, but by that time, it may have been picked up by all kinds of mirror sites and other search engines and so on.
PATTERSONYeah. And in the settlement -- in document that the court orders, it needs to list all of those URLs, and they've been pretty consistent in being able to do that. And Google, within 48 hours we've seen, takes it right out of the index.
FISHERSo, Graeme, when you sat down with the guy who ran the, perhaps, less than reputable reputation management company that your friend dealt with, I mean, were you aware of the more legitimate tools that he could have used, and did you talked to him about whether it might have made more sense to do that rather than make up all of this positive -- the fake positive news about your friend?
WOODSure. I'd say, first of all, that even he was aware that it was probably better to accentuate the true positive stuff rather than make up fake positive stuff and do that. So they did look into Phin Upham's past and find the good stuff. And believe me, they've made a lot of (word?) to that too. There are plenty of online reputation companies that will do that. And Reputation.com is just the best known of them.
WOODThis one seems to have really specialized in what the article in New York Magazine called "The Black-Ops World of Online Reputation Management." And if you eventually tried to reverse-engineer how they did it all, which is what I did in the article, then you'd find that there were probably -- there were at least half a dozen other people who I found who had also try the same thing. And they seem almost all to have gone to the company because they offered this particular service.
FISHERHere's Faith in Philadelphia. Faith, you're on the air.
FAITHYes. Hi. I have a wedding photography company in Philadelphia. And I learned a lot about Yelp because one of my unhappy customers placed my business on Yelp. I didn't have anything to do with listing my business. Then she posted a one star review. And I thought, OK, well I'll get all my happy customers to respond with positive reviews. Well, the problem is that Yelp filters reviews from reviewers that they're not familiar with. And so I got 15 happy clients to post positive reviews.
FAITHBut those are all filtered behind -- it's a very small gray text at the bottom that you have to click that says filtered reviews. And nobody ever clicks it. So then I called some people, and I learned some very interesting things. First of all, there's a whole website of yelpsucks.com from a lot of business claiming that if you're in this position and you pay Yelp their fee, which is $300 a month, to advertise on Yelp, they will correct this by unfiltering your reviews. So that's number one.
FISHERWell, let's see. Brian Patterson, is that the case? Can you buy your way out of bad news on Yelp?
PATTERSONThere's been a lot of talk about that, and I believe they had a lawsuit against them several years ago and were ordered not to do that. They said they don't do it. We've seen cases where reviews have come out of the filter or gone into the filter after people have been -- have paid for advertising. But they could be completely disconnected.
FAITHYeah. Well, the other thing I wanted to say is they appear to also have an algorithm, so that once a business gets its first one star review, that that's very influential. Because I talked to some of my competitors who don't advertise on Yelp who have four star reviews, and they said they were just very lucky that the first person who listed their business and who posted was a happy customer. And they then don't get as many filtered reviews from other happy customers even if those happy customers have not been regular posters to Yelp.
FISHERJim Harper, is there a weighting toward either the most -- either the first to post or toward the most negative review?
HARPERWell, it's interesting. It's kind of a multilayered game going on here because a site like Yelp will not only share the reputation of a business, but it considers the reputation or information that might go to the reputation of the commenter. So if someone comes on to Yelp one time and gives a review, that's going to be weighted less heavily than someone who regularly comments and has an array of comments, positive and negative about others.
FISHERJust like a reviewer on Amazon.
HARPERPeople build reputations on Yelp. And Yelp will put those reputations -- put those commenters higher than others. So that's the -- again, the reputation of the person creating the reputation of the business is under consideration. That appears to be what might have happened here.
FAITHYeah. I just had a comment about that because I have a high-end wedding photography business with clients who are very busy professionals and cannot post regularly on Yelp because they don't have the time.
PATTERSONSure. So you do have 15 great reviews filtered, if what you're saying is true. And what you can do, is like Jim was saying, they factor in how credible that person is. And if it was their first review, it's very likely going to get in the filter. But the filter is fluid. You can come in and out of the filter and your page can change. So what, you know, if you're close to those 15 or a subset of them, you can encourage them to connect with other people on Yelp.
PATTERSONLeave other reviews, upload a picture rather than having the shadow avatar. Yelp wants people to be active on the site. And if you're active on the site, you'll get out of the filter.
FISHERNow, in Graeme's story, it cost literally thousands of dollars a month for his friend Phin to try to revive his reputation online. Brian, is that the price range we're talking about? Is there any more economical way for people to go about defending themselves?
PATTERSONThe price range really varies depending on the severity of the issue. You know, large corporations can have really difficult problems to work with. And so they would need a larger budget. But there's absolutely completely free ways to manage your reputation.
PATTERSONAnd something that we encourage every company to do is be proactive about it because if you're proactive, you can control the first page a lot easier instead of having to worry about pushing something out. And then if something negative does occur, it's less likely to move its way up rapidly to the first page. So you have time to work on it.
FISHERHere's Dan in Frederick, Md. Dan, you're on the air.
DANHey. Thank you very much. So here's the question. Let's say you have an individual who got convicted of a misdemeanor. Probation is done, gets it expunged. But that mug shot is still floating around on the Internet. What do you do? I mean, can you get a judgment with the expungement that Google has to pull the search results, like you were talking about for the other stuff? How do you go about clearing your reputation because in the eyes of the law, you're innocent?
PATTERSONSure. Marc, you covered this a few weeks ago on a Tech Tuesday, the whole business of mug shots and essentially the extortion racket around it. It seemed to me that your guest indicated we don't do a lot with mug shots. But the best way was to pay them down or pay them off. Often under the mug shot, it has a link to pay to have it removed. If you can get a…
FISHERWhich is basically pure extortion.
PATTERSONIt is. And essentially, you know, it's an ethical thing. Do you wanna participate and encourage that by paying for it versus do you want your reputation clean online?
FISHERAnd you would -- you recommend to folks that they go ahead and pay the money?
PATTERSONOr if they have the means to go seek a judgment against those to have them take them down, I would suggest that route. We don't wanna encourage the mug shot proliferation.
FISHERDan, is this yourself you're talking about?
DANNo. My buddy, Paul, is going for security clearance. And he got in a brawl a couple years ago, and he's done everything, dotted every I, crossed every T, and he still can't get this arrest record, you know, offline. And it's impacting his ability to get a job. And in the eyes of law, he hasn't done anything wrong, but it's still there. And in this economy, it's just the -- you know, it's a question of...
DAN...you know, you got one negative mark on you that really isn't a negative mark, but why should an employer take a risk?
FISHERJim Harper, I mean, is there a -- is there civil liberties issue there where something -- someone has been cleared in the eyes of the law, and yet, in the wild world of commerce on the Web, it's a different reality?
HARPERIt's a cruel business, that's for sure. There are civil liberties issues perhaps on both sides. In the eyes of the law, a person who's done their time is now, you know, has the full rights of citizenship, that's all behind them. But in the eyes of the facts, that did happen. And society may want to hang on to that and use that information, negative information about people in the future.
HARPERSo sometimes, it's a relevant job qualification whether or not you've been arrested. Sometimes, it's relevant to your employer whether or not you were a big partier in high school. Unfortunately, it's wrongly used quite unfairly for some people, but sometimes, it's fair to have around. And there are actual First Amendment issues, if you were to try to pass a law, for example, to say that a picture of a person in a certain circumstance couldn't be shared online.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, more of your calls at 1-800-433-8850, and we'll talk about whether given all the reputation-scrubbing that's going on, you should be more skeptical of the search results that you find. That's after a short break. I'm Marc Fisher on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher. And on this Tech Tuesday, we are talking about managing your reputation online with Graeme Wood, a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine, Brian Patterson, who is a partner at Go Fish Digital, a Virginia-based Internet marketing and online reputation management firm, and Jim Harper, who is director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute.
FISHERAnd we have an email from Alice saying, "What about the other side of the coin? I posted a legitimate negative comment about a contractor who tried to defraud me and was then threatened by him with a lawsuit. And I was told by the supposedly independent website that I had to remove the comment." Jim Harper, is that within the rights of both the contractor and the website to react that way?
HARPERIt is within their rights. It's an illustration of the fact that there are two sides to these stories. When someone feels wronged online, they might be wrong, they might be right. And that's why that law, I referred to you earlier, the Communications Decency Act protection, is so important that every comment board shouldn't be a judge and jury on what the facts are.
HARPERIt sounds like this might be someone who's highly litigious and is using the threat of legal -- the legal system to go after a website that should know its rights to keep that kind of thing up, but we're not going to be able to hash it out here obviously. And if you really want it hashed out, you'd go to a court of law.
HARPERBut the better approach is probably to understand that consumers are going to know that some bad information is out there, some bad information is wrong. Your good behavior, persistent over time, will tend to win out. It doesn't always win out. There are some cases where it doesn't. But good behavior has no substitute.
FISHERAnd, Graeme Wood, as you looked into the case that you wrote about in New York Magazine, you saw that there were ways that people could get in the system, what did that do to your sense of trust in the results that you get when you are doing online searches? Should users be more skeptical of search results than they are?
WOODYeah. I think it did make me more skeptical than I was before but not as skeptical as I had been, at one point. I do remember at the time when I first started looking into the Internet, you know, in the 1990s, when I pretty quickly realized that anybody could put up a website and what you see on the Internet shocker of shockers, it just might not be true. So I became very skeptical then.
WOODAnd then as Google got better and I got more trusting of the sorting mechanisms that were out there, I started to believe, I think perhaps too much, that the results that I was seeing were pretty likely to be true. It turns out that might not be the case.
WOODThere are some very clever ways that exist out there to hide the truth and to make fake websites appear real, not only to people who click through but to the search engines that are -- that we all trust to sort them. So once you know that the system can be gamed, then you don't really look at the Web the same way again.
FISHERHere's Valerie in Alexandria, VA. Valerie, you're on the air.
VALERIEYes. Hi. It's in reference to the woman who talked about the filtering system that is going on Yelp. My dad who is an older doctor -- 80 years old, ear, nose and throat -- an M.D., who has gone the preventive medicine way and decided that that was a better approach for his patient, was, well, basically accused of being a quack. And...
VALERIEYeah, on Yelp. Yeah. And me being the daughter, knowing him, devoted older doctor, intellectual, reads, knowledgeable, I thought -- I did the same thing that woman did. I asked his patient to respond, but it was filtered out. And he -- this man has helped dozens of people who were just, like, taken by severe illnesses. But we couldn't get through, and it was heartbreaking.
VALERIEAnd he's too old to play the game of, you know...
HARPERThese disputes are unfortunate, of course, but I look at them with a sort of longer, bigger time horizon. And I think about the fact that in the past, it was impossible to have any reputation at all. And the Internet allows small businesses to advertise themselves and be found by local patrons and things like that. Generally, those will -- those leave people better off. Consumers having more information leaves them better off, businesses having more opportunity to reach consumers directly.
HARPERWhen your reputation was only a matter of getting on one of the three major networks or getting into the one newspaper in town or getting on radio, lots of people had no reputation at all. And I think they're worse off in that environment than they are even now though they can get some unfair criticism.
FISHERWell, Brian Patterson, in that freewheeling marketplace of ideas that Jim is talking about, does the truth out? Do things eventually balance out? I mean, if it were quite as simple as that, then your company would have no reason to exist.
PATTERSONRight. Do things balance out? We don't think so. Things tend to get more negative than they are positive. People tend to get negative coverage about themselves. People tend to complain more than they compliment online. And so what happens is if you're not in control of your reputation, it eventually becomes negative if there are any potential areas where it could become negative. And so that's where creating the positive content about yourself by doing positive things helps at least somewhat balance that out.
PATTERSONBut, you know, we have cases where someone will be charged with the crime, they'll be found not guilty, completely fabricated and made up case. But the only thing that the news covered was the crime, and so the assault is right there, number two, for their name when, in reality, they never assaulted anyone.
FISHERBecause this whole field is so new, this whole concept of reputation management strikes me as kind of reactive. Are we at a point where we're about to see the birth of a new industry of reputation insurance where you actually buy a policy upfront, maybe when you're a teenager to protect you for your life and you have somebody working on this all along?
PATTERSONIt's not a bad business idea.
PATTERSONWe've found proactive reputation management to be a tough sell. People tend to only really be interested in reputation management after they've had an issue 'cause no one sees it coming or expects it to happen.
FISHERHere's Andrew who deals with complaints about doctors all the time at an online reputation company. Andrew in McLean, you're on the air.
ANDREWHi. Thanks for having me. So we actually built out a entire system called patientadviser.com. (unintelligible) And one of the things that we were looking at is providing intelligence around both the positive and negative comments that were out there about physicians or about health care systems or private practices. So we (word?) that could essentially understand these subjective comments that patients or customers were leaving online. And the reaction within health care and with physicians has been nothing short of explosive.
ANDREWSo we launched this back in January, and I kind of wanted to bring it back to the panel as what have you seen in health care since they're typically slower to adopt new technology, and obviously online reputation is across the board?
FISHERSo -- well, explain what you're doing. Are you going beyond the posting of the comments to actually vet them and say which comments are accurate?
ANDREWCorrect. So we have a scoring model where we can re-pull all of the online social media content from all of the online sources, so review sites, recommendation sites, blogs, microblogs and so on. And then we can provide the intelligence around it with that natural language processing system that we've developed. So we can then score it based on that sentiment.
ANDREWSo our system could say, you know, the patients from these online comments are talking about the (word?) error or they were talking about the wait time in the facility. And they were rated a 4.0 out of a 5.0 based on the sentiment on these subjective comments.
FISHERRight. So you're not doing sort of original reporting in a consumer reports kind of vain of going out and checking out these physicians, but rather you're sort of aggregating the available information already online. Is that a new approach, Jim Harper?
HARPERI think what we have here is a business model, and one can't know if it works until we find out if it works.
HARPERThink again about reputation. Now we have reputation sites trying to establish reputation, and the caller here evidently has an idea for improving the quality of information that get out to the public through other sites. So they're aggregated and considered more carefully. Does it work? Let's find out. But it's all part of a mix, a jumble, a complicated and often messy process where people learn about others, people learn about business. And some people take extraordinary efforts to create reputation.
FISHERThanks for the call, Andrew. Graeme, you write in your New York magazine piece that it's wildly optimistic to think that bad information online could be swept up with just a PR hack and a digital dust pan. So what do you think are the limitations of reputation management techniques?
WOODWell, if you're really unlucky and you happen to have an investigative reporter who's looking into what you done...
WOOD...then there's really nothing you can do.
FISHERYour poor friend, Phin, yes.
WOODYeah. So I would say, first, avoid journalists, and do that long before you've done anything bad. After that, though, I think that the techniques that exist -- that is the techniques other than just doing good things in crowding out the pad -- are really the best tools that we have at our disposal. And those include accentuating the positives, putting out press releases about good things that you've done. And you find, as I said before, some very sophisticated, clever techniques.
WOODOne of the previous callers mentioned having other people out there with the same name. Some of these companies will actually produce fake people out there with the same name so that if there's a story about you, then anyone who looks at it might think that it was actually the other Jim Harper and the other Brian Patterson who did this. So even if you do have a distinctive name, you might even be able to do some proactive, pre-disaster planning that way. And once you've done that, that's really, I think, about as good insurance policies as you can produce on your own.
FISHERAnd, Brian Patterson, for those who maybe can't afford the services of Go Fish Digital, what are some basic things that someone can do to keep a good reputation online?
PATTERSONSo from an individual perspective, the great place to start is social media. There's a ton of great social media sites to be active on. You know, some people don't want to do that. But in this age, if you wanted to control your reputation as it comes to Google, you need to be active on the Web. And so starting with social media sites is great. Google has really adopted Google Plus, and we're just gonna see it more and more in the search results. That's their social media network.
PATTERSONSo being active there early is going to be important. Buying your own domain name, so your name dot com or a variation of that if it's not available is critical. And starting a blog so, you know, write whatever your thoughts are or whatever you're passionate about, put stuff out there so that you can build that wall of protection should something negative come out about you.
FISHERAnd what is ifttt.com?
PATTERSONI-F-T-T-T dot com, a great website. It's really a utility, and let's you do -- it lets you -- OK. So it goes back to if, this, then, that, an old programming staple. And you create what they call recipes. So we use IFTTT to monitor Wikipedia. So we say, if this Wikipedia page changes, then send me an email.
PATTERSONAnd so for high-profile individuals who are on Wikipedia or maybe you're monitoring a company Wikipedia page, you can create a recipe to send you an email when -- whenever your Wikipedia page changes. In the same lane you can say, if someone tags me in a photo on Facebook, then download it to my Dropbox. It's a very versatile tool.
FISHERWell, that's great. And, Jim Harper, so can your online reputation today end up shaping your online legacy in the future? In other words, how lasting? How -- what -- how enduring is the bad stuff that comes up with -- about you on Google?
HARPERThe bad stuff can stick around, but it -- I think a lot of people some years back thought that it would stick around forever. The stuff that's relevant sticks around. The stuff that's not relevant will eventually fade away in general. There are exceptions, the example of the exhortative mug shot business. But there -- you can create lots of positive information about your business. An example from the recent past, a local business on Barracks Row advertised their restaurant on Facebook to me.
HARPERAnd I went to their Facebook page, and I said, not if you still got that bartender working. They responded, she's no longer with us. I said, OK, I'll be in on Saturday.
HARPERSo small business people can be affirmative about that, putting information out to Facebook, interacting on Twitter and on Facebook with customers, past customers and future customers.
FISHERAnd in your life, Brian, have there been instances where you've had to try to massage your online reputation in any kind of way? Is there anything that you've done that you found, well, this really made a difference?
PATTERSONWe -- because the nature of our businesses, people don't want to know, deal -- don't want other people to know that they are engaging us. We find it hard to have examples to show them that we are capable of helping your reputation online. So we have taken it upon ourselves to either do it for myself or for someone else where we'll change or we'll work to manipulate like the Autocomplete, which is what drops down from Google when you begin to type a word or phrase. We changed that for me and for others so that you can see that we are able to do what we do without exposing who our client bases.
FISHERGreat. Well, Brian Patterson is an online reputation management professional and a partner at Go Fish Digital, which is a Internet marketing and online reputation management firm in Ashburn, Va. And we're also joined by Jim Harper, he is the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. And Graeme Wood is a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine.
FISHERHe wrote a recent article in New York magazine titled "Scrubbed," about the practices of an online reputation company. And I imagine, Graeme, that you will not be hearing from your friend Phin any time soon.
WOODNo. I doubt I will.
FISHEROr from the company that protected his reputation in interesting ways. Well, thanks all of you for being here on this Tech Tuesday. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for joining us.
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