I've written quite a few articles about the need for small businesses and even individuals to focus on online reputation management. What people say about you online can make or break you in the business world. It can get you a date, or cause a date to be broken. It can get you past the college application board, or it can leave your admission hopes dead in the water. Companies realize this and some firms are starting to offer online reputation management services. But what happens when an online reputation management service puts itself in a position for a little criticism of it's own?

While visiting some small business blogs today, I ran across a post asking about a company called "ReputationDefender." The poster mentioned that for a subscription fee, this company would scour the web looking for mentions of your name on web sites, blogs and discussion forums. This isn't uncommon, there are several companies that offer services like these. After all, not everyone has time to sift through search results on a regular basis looking for the newest posts or comments.

ReputationDefender advertises itself as a subscription service. You pay by the month and in exchange for your fee ($10-$15 a month) the company will send you a report that outlines all of the places they've found that mentioned you online.

Now, that all sounds fine and dandy, but things get a little trickier in their product offerings at that point.

The following is a quote from their services page:

If we find an item of online content you don't like, we'll carry out our proprietary DESTROY process for you on that item for the one-time low fee of $29.95. This is where the rubber hits the road. It is an arduous and time-consuming process for our team of specialists, but we work hard so you can sleep better at night. You don't pay this till you command us to DESTROY unwanted online content.

Now, let's consider two key points.

First, the only person that can remove content is the person that controls the content. Thus, the only real option that someone has is to send an email, a letter or to make a phone call to inquire about having the content removed.

Second, even if a company does make contact to address the negative (or even false) information that appears on another site, that's no guarantee that it's going to disappear. Apart from reasoning with a site owner, the only way to make something vanish is to get a court order. You can darn well bet that no lawyer is going to take a case to court for you for a measly $30.

Now it is important to note that despite talking about simply finding content that "you don't like" ReputationDefender does go into a bit more detail on their FAQ page...

Our correction/removal ("Destroy") service was designed to help private citizens regain control over unintentionally posted or outdated personal information accidentally disclosed to the public Internet, and address potentially libelous, slanderous, defamatory or invasive information about them that serves no public benefit.

However, even if you look beyond the simply "someone is saying bad things about me" line of reasoning and plan to target only what falls into the above categories, it's still worthwhile to take a gander at their user agreement. It was an interesting read. Consider each of the following statements taken as direct cut and paste quotes from the user agreement as of January 23rd, 2007.

ReputationDefender, moreover, does not guarantee or warrant that it will be successful in effecting removal or alteration, if such service is to be performed, of any Internet content about the Customer or the Named Party he or she has designated as the subject of the searches to be undertaken by the Company.

You authorize us to take such action on your behalf, and to identify ourselves as acting on your behalf. You recognize that such contact may have unpredictable side-effects, including but not limited to negative responses from others.

All sales of MyReputation and MyChild services, and all associated services, are final. No refunds shall be given by ReputationDefender, Inc., or any other party for any amounts paid for MyReputation and MyChild services, including, without limitation, any service charges or fees.

The Customer also acknowledges and accepts the risk that ReputationDefender, Inc., may not succeed in effecting the removal and/or alteration of any Internet content about the Customer or the Named Party (e.g. the Customer's child) whom the Customer designates as the person about whom ReputationDefender, Inc., will undertake to effect the removal and/or alteration of Internet content. No refunds shall be given by ReputationDefender, Inc., for any reason. As the Customer can appreciate, the Company's work is quite difficult, and we will do our best, but we are not able to make any guarantees!

Wait, it gets better.

Further, the Customer hereby acknowledges that the Company can not and does not make any guarantees or warranties, and the Customer therefore understands that he or she foregoes the right to dispute credit card charges on the grounds that the Company has failed to deliver satisfactory services. The Customer further understands that, because the Company is an Internet-based business, the Company never actually takes physical possession of the customer's credit card; the Customer acknowledges that, for this reason, the Company would normally have difficulty prevailing in credit card charge disputes with the Customer relative to a physically-based business. The Customer therefore foregoes his or her right to dispute the credit card charges he or she incurs with the Company.

Now, having read all that...tell me. Would you be willing to pay them $30 per incident knowing that they've clearly spelled out that they really don't have to accomplish anything and oh, by the way, you give up your rights to dispute their charges or to request refunds if you are unhappy with their services?

I wonder if they appreciate the irony of this post and this critique?

The point being made here is this. It's not terribly difficult to track your own reputation online. Most of the major search engines have alert services that will tell you when new content shows up for a particular keyword phrase. Most blog search engines do a pretty good job of ferreting out mentions on even the least popular blogs. It's true that you aren't going to find every mention by yourself, but if you put forth a reasonable effort chances are high that you're going to find everything that anyone else would notice.

As for dealing with negative mentions... Well, the only thing that anyone can do is attempt to engage the owners of those sites in conversation. Sometimes it will go well, sometimes it will go bad. A great deal depends on how you approach it. Yes, there are instances where you'll need to go to the effort of getting legal representation or maybe even hiring a public relations firm to help you deal with the problem, but we all know that when it reaches that point, it's going to cost far more than $30.

So why not pocket your $30 and simply send off an email on your own time to see if you can remedy the situation on your own? Heck, send me $30. I'll write an email for you. I can't make any promises about the results though...

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

January 23, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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