Michael Fertik may be running a business, but by the time new customers are knocking on his door, things have turned decidedly personal. "People send us letters that say, 'You saved my life,'" says the CEO of Reputation.com, pointing to the dramatic ways in which a person's virtual reputation can shape their day-to-day routine. "They literally say, 'I'm now able to live my life.'"
When most Web surfers Google themselves, the self-search begins and ends with social sites: links to a LinkedIn profile, a Twitter handle and, if they've correctly used their privacy settings, a protected Facebook wall. If they're really lucky, a press release or news article might pop up detailing an accomplishment or two. But for a growing number of people, these searches can also drudge up something ugly: blog posts written by an ex about a nasty divorce, an ill-advised YouTube video of a rowdy night out, details of a decade-old bankruptcy. As much as we might be loath to admit it, what the Internet is saying about us matters. Just ask anyone who has ever Googled a colleague or romantic interest it's the fastest way to dig up the dirt on someone.
More than just a source of personal humiliation, online reputations can also be professionally devastating. A 2010 study by Microsoft and Cross-Tab, a market-research agency, found that 78% of surveyed U.S. companies examined the search-engine results of prospective hires. The study also found that 86% of employers reported that a positive online reputation factors into their hiring decision. Which means all those persistent online links, videos and blog smears could become a major financial liability.
Enter the experts from such online-reputation-management firms as Reputation.com and Integrity Defenders. For a fee, these companies work with you to escape a bad rap. And while it's next to impossible to erase something from the Internet, they know the tricks of burying the negative beneath an avalanche of positive links. "We try and promote good information about you," says Alan Assante, president of Integrity Defenders, a New Jerseybased company founded in 2009. "Whether it's your accomplishments or good things you've done in the past, we use that information to suppress the unwanted information."
Sounds simple, right? But now consider the fact that it can be extraordinarily difficult to suppress popular links, or trick search engines into reprioritizing results. That's where professionals like Assante and Fertik, with their mastery of search algorithms, come in. Reputation.com, one of the leading companies in the field, employs more than 100 online experts, many with Ph.D.s, who use their intimate knowledge of search-engine optimization rankings and something called prevalence algorithms to drive positive search results to the top.
Once upon a time, it was chiefly celebrities and high-profile Web users who were concerned about their search results. But more recently, common Web users have similarly begun to realize that skeletons from their past are popping up on Web browsers. While online-reputation-management companies have been around for a few years, the demand for their business has been accelerating exponentially. Fertik says his company's revenues have soared 600% in the past year alone, driven in part by clients looking to keep their data private, as well as by the uptick in customers looking to escape negative Web reputations. These days, the sort of person hoping to ditch a bad rep is almost as diverse as the Web itself, from college students to small-business owners, divorcés to young professionals. As for the most common problems plaguing customers, Assante and Fertik say they see a lot of issues pertaining to a vengeful ex or financial troubles from years ago.
"The set of problems has become a lot more complex," Fertik says, describing not only the ways people become tied to negative information, but also how that data then floats to the top of the Web. "As social media and mobile media exploded and data mining has gotten more sophisticated, people have a lot more points of vulnerability." Essentially, the more you live your life online, the more likely it becomes that negative information can be associated with you and the more persistently it can follow you.
Once something ugly gets out there, online-reputation managers say it can be a long process to suppress it. After a client calls Fertik's company and requests the firm's Reputation Defenders service, an expert combs the Web to see what information is out there. Once those results are assessed, the client will approve what specific information they'd like promoted. Fertik says this step in the process is usually achieved by creating a personal website, a LinkedIn profile or a Twitter account, all things that rank high on search engines and that can be used to promote positive information. (He also notes that his company won't create information about you. It'll only promote things that are true, so you can forget about that fauxNobel Prize link.)
It's an effective, but costly, process: Reputation.com charges a starting rate of $3,000 a month for its Reputation Defender service, while Integrity Defenders charges $498 to clear negative links from the first page of search results and $929 to clear two pages (they also offer a money-back guarantee). Hefty prices to be sure, but if you can afford the cost, the services could be worth it, if only for peace of mind. According to Dr. Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and a former president of the American Psychological Association, the intimate nature of one's reputation means that any threat to it could also be a significant threat to one's mental health, leaving a person feeling helpless, anxious or even depressed. "Our self-concept, our self-esteem, our reputation all of these are central to who we are," he says. Even when it's online.