News Column

Online Trail Could Put Your Reputation at Risk

Page 2 of 1

That guy whose college antics turned up on YouTube? The would-be nurse once arrested for child endangerment? The real estate agent whose disgruntled client slammed him on Yelp?

They're not the only ones who ought to fret about what comes up when someone plugs their name into an Internet search engine.

Experts say the average Joe and Jeanette need to devote time and attention to how they are portrayed online, given the growing role the Internet plays in recording and defining our lives.

Maybe they'll find out they share a name with a porn star. Santa Rosa technology consultant Kerry Rego knows three people with that very predicament.

Others face different problems.

A Santa Rosa woman is rebuilding her life after someone with a personal vendetta launched a vast and twisted campaign to malign her over and over on the web.

A Sonoma County man is plagued by an online version of a newspaper story about the arrest of his father, who has the same name and worked in the same field.

Still another Sonoma County man was mortified when his future mother-in-law Googled him and discovered an old newspaper story about his arrest on minor drug charges. Even though he completed a diversion program that erased the offense from his criminal record, the arrest is permanently engraved on computer servers across the Internet.

"There's really no way you can remove things from the web," Rego said. "But you can control the message that is out there about you."

Rego is part of a growing corps of consultants who help companies and individuals take control of their online reputations.

Your digital footprint can impact your ability to get into college, land a job, run a business and find a spouse. Sooner or later, someone is bound to type your name into Google and see what they can find.

It has spawned a new industry: online reputation management, a high-tech stepchild of the public relations and marketing fields. The industry has exploded in recent years, offering high-priced corporate services, self-help books and self-service software applications to help customers alter their online personas.

"We have an expression around here, that you are who Google says you are," said Michael Zammuto, president of ReputationChanger.com, headquartered in Pennsylvania.

The needs of individuals, professionals and corporate entities differ in scale and, likely, the amount of money on the line. But they operate on many of the same principles -- mainly, flooding the system with the kind of well-crafted, regularly updated material that reflects a positive message.

It is nearly impossible to remove negative information from the Internet, whether it reflects youthful mistakes, poor reviews by customers or oversharing of personal information, experts said.

But you can hide it, pushing it off the top page of Google search results and deeper into the recesses of the Internet where few people bother to look.

"Good results help as much as bad results hurt you," said Patrick Ambron, chief executive of BrandYourself. "Not existing or being completely irrelevant is also harmful."

A wide range of companies are willing to perform those duties for a fee -- sometimes in the thousands of dollars, though some firms offer less costly levels of assistance.

BrandYourself -- whose co-founder shares the name of a drug dealer, which proved problematic when he started seeking college internships -- developed a free, do-it-yourself tool kit as an alternative to expensive, full-service options.

PD Media Lab, a digital marketing agency owned by The Press Democrat, sells a digital reputation management service as part of its portfolio of products for local businesses. The firm creates and monitors social media sites for its clients and advises them on how to counter negative information.

"Reputation management is a growing concern for small and mid-sized businesses that can get killed by a bad Yelp review or a fraudulent message somewhere," said Greg Retsinas, director of the PD Media Lab.

Experts say many Internet users need look no farther than their own keyboards to spiff up their online profiles. By using multiple media tools and the fundamentals of search engine optimization, any individual can put positive material at the top of search results generated under an individual's name.

"It's kind of killing it with kindness and overwhelming it with positivity," said Rego, a new media trainer and author of a new book, "Take Control of Your Online Reputation."

The alternative, she said, is to let your past and your critics define you online.

"You have to actually do something," Rego said. "If you're not, then anybody can say whatever they want and manage your reputation for you."

You don't need to know how to code web pages to understand that Google -- the nation's dominant search engine, with a reported 100 billion monthly searches -- favors whatever's new, fresh and buzzworthy. Or that most people searching the web never move past the first page of results.

Filling out profiles on established media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and the like is one way to move your content into upper-ranking tiers.

Elevate the material you want people to see by regularly updating blogs and social media sites with usable, interesting information that promotes sharing and linking between your accounts, said Lori Randall Stradtman, author of "Online Reputation Management for Dummmies."

Most consultants also advise their clients to acquire domain names with their names in them as another means of controlling how they're viewed online -- a step so basic they say parents should even obtain domain names for their kids as soon as they're born. Zammuto has them for his kids, with plans to turn them over after college, and has gone so far as to reserve Facebook accounts for them, as well.

There's something at stake for virtually everyone -- whether it's job prospects, college admissions, a competitive market edge, the promise of romance or a professional reputation.

"It touches everyone in one way or another," Stradtman said.

And the impact will only become more profound for the generations whose lives play out entirely during the cyber age. In the future, amplified computing power will permit the mining of information from ever wider, deeper wells of data.

Zammuto said he knows his own offspring are sick of hearing his lectures about exercising discretion in the digital world.

"I am willing to guarantee that they will never get into college, they will never get a job, they will never get a date, they will never get married without the other person checking them out online," he said.

"I'm 43. I could do dumb things without having them follow me around for the rest of my life," Zammuto said. "These kids don't have that."


For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel