Digital Deception: The Online Makeover

We live in a world where facelifts and hair transplants and tummy tucks are commonplace. Most of us know someone who has had a nose job or a breast enhancement.

We endure these surgical or chemical treatments in the expectation that it will improve our romantic prospects, our professional status or business connections, or simply boost our self image. Now you can not only invest in tweaking your physical appearance but can also find outside help to upgrade your online persona.

A fairly robust consultative business has emerged in the last 10 years of online reputation management.   In the words of Tom Krazit of CNET , “If you think Google has got you all wrong, there’s a consultant who thinks he or she can set the search gods straight.” Those consultants range from fairly upstanding to slightly underhanded to downright fraudulent.

“For every person who has moved on after an honest mistake,” Krazit says, “There are others trying to cover up shady behavior or hide the truth.” So a big part of what reputation managers are addressing is negative information online. Some will try to cajole Web site operators into making the offending material disappear. Others will try some pseudo-legal bullying.

Reputation X in Sausalito, Calif.,  acknowledges that it is difficult and often unlikely that you can make the negative post or story or image disappear. What they do instead is what they call suppression. The idea behind suppression is that if you can’t make the bad stuff go away, the next best option is to bury it so it appears so far down in search results that few ever see it. While not everyone uses the terminology suppression, this tactic is the primary one used by reputation management agencies. They essentially rely on two skills, SEO and content creation, which are widely used by all types of digital publishers.

The tactics used by various agencies to manipulate an individual or organization’s search results demonstrate a wide range of ethical sensitivity.

  • Reputation X talks about PBN’s, that is positive stories that appear lower in search results than negative stories (positives below negatives). They try to promote the positive so that it surpasses the negative is search results.
  • They focus on those sites that appear to have the highest credibility with Google, such as Facebook, LinkinIn, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Technorati and Digg, and try to create happy and wholesome content about their clients on those sites.
  • Some of these agencies have created fictitious blogs using the name of their client but presenting it as a different person with the same name.
  • Others have taken advantage of content farms like Demand Media to write articles and to use their client’s name in the byline.

Reputation Management Consultants which has addresses in Irvine, Calif., and in London, calls their service an “innoculation campaign” which will include building microsites that house “high quality” content by or about their clients.

Most of these consultants try to convert their clients from the one time hit to a continuing service. The content creation piece of this of course takes some time and they bill their premium service as a way to prevent further reputational problems. Most don’t put their rates online but I saw charges ranging from $5 a month to $10,000 a year. As with plastic surgery, the more you want to tweak, the more it’s going to cost.

I couldn’t help but notice that several of these reputation management firms have not themselves been able to keep negative stories or reviews about their service off of the first page of search results. I was also curious to find one of these guys in Texas who described himself as a “thought engineer.”

If you happen to be in the market for a reputation manager one of the things you should be wary of is anyone who promises guaranteed removal of undesirable content. That is what Reputation Resolutions offers. You may be thinking about embarrassing tweets that you were mentioned in or maybe a compromising picture that a friend posted on Instagram from a night of drunken revelry.

But those are not apparently the sites that Reputation Resolutions can help you with. They do offer several levels of service for dealing with a site called Reportyourex.com.  This site describes its mission as “to give everyone the opportunity to tell the world about how their ex-boyfirend or ex-girlfirend did them wrong.” (When I went to the site there were only two posts there, one from 2011.) Reputation Resolution offers a $399 package that promises to remove the post and an enhanced $499 package that includes not only removal but also deletion from Google’s cache. Not surprisingly neither of these sites tells you who owns the site or where you can find them.

Another one of the sites listed by Reputation Resolutions is cheaterville.com which uses the tagline “fight infidelity, post a known cheater now.”

Cheaterville seems to have a more robust set of content than Reportyourex. Not to worry though because cheaterville.com offers a button to click on to remove posts. That click will take you to, you guessed it, a reputation management firm, removemyname.com.

They offer the suppression plan package for $499.

Another sleazy offshoot of reputation management is the mug shot extortionist. They will take publically available mug shots, say after someone was arrested for a DWI, and post them on a Web site. They’ll then contact the person involved and offer their reputation management service of removing the photo from the site. If you buy in, they may offer the enhanced service for an enhanced fee, which means they won’t publish the photo on another of their mugshot sites. (I’m reminded of parking my car on the street near Municipal Stadium in Cleveland and having some gentleman offer to “protect” my car for $5.)

Which all goes to show there can be a fine line between consultant and extortionist. Wonder what these guys could do for Donald Sterling?

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11 Responses to Digital Deception: The Online Makeover

  1. jacquiegum says:

    This to me, incites an ethical debate. I would be curious to know what the percentage is of suppressed information that SHOULD be suppressed (false accusations) to factual information that shouldn’t be. I sort of compare this to defense attorneys who defend known guilty clients

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  2. Ken Dowell says:

    I assume that as with other dubious SEO tactics, if these practices become widespread, Google will try to tweak their algorithms to neutralize them.

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  3. Tim says:

    Thanks very much for that insightful but depressing report on the tactics of the online sleaze. In the scenarios at the end of the piece it would seem that this kind of thing is blatant extortion and therefore criminal…is that not the case?

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  4. maxwell ivey says:

    Hi; it all seems kind of sleazy. i think my opinion of these companies is the same as that of those promising to get your site on th first page of google. I don’t believe they can without exercising shady tactics. and i’m not about to pay for something that may not have a lasting effect and that will cause me and my site more harm the good in th long run. thanks for sharing, max

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      The thing about SEO is that if you find something that works everyone starts using it. It then screws up the search results and so Google screws with its algorithms until it has neutralized it.

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  5. Lenie says:

    I had no idea sites like that existed. It kind of reminded me of those people on Twitter who offer to give you thousands of followers for just $5.00 but then have only 100 or so followers themselves. Sleazy practices all around. Thanks for the warning.

    Like

  6. Duke Stewart says:

    I’m really not sure this is right but worse acts have been granted safe package. It’s too bad that the worst scum on the earth can pay to have their misdeeds erased. But hey, hasn’t the internet always been full of some sort of deception? I write under a pseudonym. Wouldn’t that be some form of deception in some people’s eyes?

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  7. Mina A Joshi says:

    I wonder if newspapers too use something similar to promote some news so that you don’t focus on some stories the Govt. or big organisations don’t want to share too widely?

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