A South Florida doctor wanted to bury a bad online rating of his services.
A Boca Raton, Fla., jeweler needed positive reviews about his business to rank higher on Internet searches.
And a Miami Beach restaurant looked to downplay negative comments about the lack of decor before it was remodeled.
All were clients of reputation managers who specialize in cleaning up "digital dirt" - or at least sweeping it under the rug to make it harder to find.
Businesses such as Profile Defenders in Fort Lauderdale and SoVi Digital in West Palm Beach, Fla., are growing in popularity as people and companies realize the role an online reputation plays in everyday search engine results.
"The bottom line is that reputation matters, and the ever-important first impression is now more than ever likely to be made online," said Anthony Miyazaki, a marketing professor at Florida International University.
Profile Defenders, which launched last year, works to counteract negative comments for clients by creating more flattering content, such as profiles on the social networking sites Facebook or LinkedIn, and by issuing online news releases so they rank higher in Internet searches than negative links.
These Web rep specialists say good placement is key in making people look good.
"About 92 percent of (online) searches do not go past the first page," said Richart Ruddie, a partner in Profile Defenders, explaining how most consumers may not look after the first page of search results. "For X amount of dollars, we guarantee we will get the (negative) search result off the front page."
Fees for this service at Profile Defenders can range from $2,000 per case to five figures for a monthly retainer. Ruddie said his clients include lawyers, doctors, small business owners and companies who want to respond quickly to bad ratings.
One client was Ryan Blank, owner of Get Gold Cash and Diamonds in Boca Raton. Last year, Blank noticed that online customers were confusing his business with a similarly named one, Get Gold Cash.
"It was becoming a problem," Blank said. "Profile Defenders were able to do whatever they do on Google to fix the problem."
Sometimes, these online reputation firms can get a bad rap themselves. Last month, Park Avenue Funding, a New York mortgage investment firm, filed a suit against Profile Defenders claiming the company was using confidential information to extort money from them and damage their online reputation. Ruddie, of Profile Defenders, said "the lawsuit filed by PAF is frivolous and based on assertions without merit." Park Avenue Funding declined to comment.
The Web reputation management industry is a growing one. An April study by media research firm BIA/Kelsey found that small and mid-sized businesses will spend about $700 million to monitor consumer online opinions in the next year - double the spending from the past 12 months.
"Tools like this that can automate the process or make the process much easier are becoming not just more attractive but more necessary," said Jed Williams, a senior analyst with Virginia-based BIA/Kelsey. He noted the proliferation of social networking sites where people have an instant podium to share comments and reviews about services or products they've used.
"You put all these things together and it really is this unbelievable, and in many ways, an overwhelming patchwork quilt you have to attend to as a business," he said.
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