Are you really who Google says you are?
Go ahead, check the first 10 listings that come up on a Google search for your name. Depending on how common a name you have, the results are likely to produce links to your Facebook profile, or a LinkedIn resume, or that time in high school you scored eight points against a bitter rival. But chances are you might also see something on that first page that's either embarrassing, silly, or just plain wrong.
If the prospect of a future employer, customer, or romantic interest seeing that link raises your blood pressure, you can turn to several reputation management firms in hopes of getting more control over your presence in search results. This is without question a murky field: for every person who has moved on after an honest mistake there are others trying to cover up shady behavior or hide the truth.
But reputation management consultants believe that people have the right to control how their name is presented to the world. Google may be the de facto public record of our times, but it's never going to tell you how it decided that those 10 links were the most relevant details of your life.
"Google is not God, it is not the First Amendment, and it's not the truth," said Michael Fertik, founder of Reputation.com. "It's probably the best machine of the last 10 years, but it's just a machine."
How it works
Online reputation management is a cross between a number of different fields, including forensic analysis, search-engine optimization, and legal maneuvering, said Michael Roberts, a senior consultant for Rexxfield. Many firms are hired at the request of those who believe they have been libeled on Web sites, and firms such as Rexxfield can work on their client's behalf to get that content removed from a particular site through take-down notices and other conventional legal means.
However, this isn't always an easy thing to do, as anonymous accounts are often used and damaging content can be removed from one site before the legal process gets rolling and moved to another site, Roberts said. That means Rexxfield and other reputation management firms often resort to side projects aimed at finding a way to get more content into Google's database linked to that person's name.
There are many ways to go about this, some more ethical than others. For example, several consultants interviewed for this story didn't think there was anything wrong with convincing clients to join social-networking services under their names, start a personal blog or Twitter feed, or create a home page on a domain with their name. Links to prominent services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Flickr carry a lot of weight with Google, and can push unwanted content to the Google Ghetto, otherwise known as page two.
But there are plenty of companies willing to play on the darker side of this game. Fertik said a common technique is to try and sneak a client's name into a site with a lot of rank with Google, such as IMDB.com. There are apparently a lot of "co-producers" on small films in IMDB that didn't necessarily contribute much to the product, he said.
If your name is relatively common, some will create fake blogs purporting to be other people who share your name, which won't boost your own presence but will create enough new content under searches for that name as to push the undesirable results farther out on Google. And the bottom feeders of the business are not above spam-bots and even distributed denial-of-service attacks to force sites with damaging content off the Web entirely.
Then there are the tactics in the middle, which are relatively widespread but few are willing to admit they employ. This includes things like "astroturfing," or the creation of anonymous commenter accounts to buttress a positive piece of content or lash out against a negative one. The rise of content farms like Yahoo's Associated Content or Demand Media also allows firms to write articles for those services using a client's byline, which can simply be explained away as a way to earn a little cash on the side.
Several consultants interviewed said they had clear procedures regarding the types of cases they wouldn't accept, such as those involving crimes against a child or extremely serious violent crimes. For less serious but still weighty matters, Roberts noted that "if somebody has turned their life around, we're willing to help."
What would Google do?
Google declined provide access to any employees to discuss the subject of reputation management but sent over this statement:
Our goal is to help people find relevant information. So, we don't condone reputation management campaigns that attempt to hide relevant information. While there is nothing in our guidelines that explicitly forbids reputation management, if we uncover link schemes or other violations, we reserve the right to take action in response. We are constantly working to improve our algorithms to ensure people find the most relevant information possible for their searches.
Rexxfield and Google have had interactions, but mostly in the legal sense regarding things like take-down notices, Roberts said. Talking with the search people about specific results would be a waste of time, he said: "We don't bother because they won't do it."
Fertik said Google is definitely aware of the services that his company provides but declined to get into details on specific conversations that may or may not have taken place."
The work done by consultants in this field requires them to study Google's ranking results very closely, and over time Reputation.com has identified "hundreds" of ways to influence Google's rankings, Fertik said. However, many of those are only applicable in very specific cases, or for short periods of time, or too much trouble to be really worth the effort, he said.
Still, Reputation.com says it has identified "a few gems" for getting things done in Google that it naturally declines to disclose. "What we have to do is spend as much time in useful observation as possible, and hope and verify that our beliefs are right," Fertik said.
Revenue from reputation?
Fertik's company is one of the larger ones in the reputation management field and has been around since 2006, when it was founded as Reputation Defender (the company changed its name last week). It has received funding from Kleiner Perkins and Bessemer Partners, among others, and currently has 110 employees based in Redwood City, Calif.
Reputation.com has three levels of products, ranging from around $5 a month to more detailed services for business customers that can cost as much as $10,000 a year. Rexxfield, a much smaller outfit that is about to expand according to Roberts, doesn't publish its price list, preferring to work out pricing with individual clients.
The field is quickly evolving from those who sought reputation management services to hide things to those who are looking to put their best foot forward on the Web. "People put thought in the way they dress before they go on a date or before a job interview," Fertik said, and as the Web becomes an even bigger part of our lives, it's natural that people will want to make themselves look as good as possible, he said.
This will definitely continue to be a balancing act between those who want to be seen as the arbiters of what is relevant on the Web and those who want greater control of how their identity is presented to the world: for both good reasons and bad.
But not everyone who wants to change the way they look on Google is trying to game the system, according to Fertik.
"I think there's a flaw in the thinking that anything that is a change of Google is manipulation," he said. "Google's statement reflects their wish that we believe that they are God."