Technology

Online profile spring cleaning

DNA fingerprinting
Image caption Not everyone is happy with what is said about them on the internet

In a world in which everyone can be Googled, it can be hard to escape your worst mistakes.

From disgruntled clients to drunken college antics and vengeful exes, your best-kept secrets are just a click of a mouse away.

The internet means there is a permanent record of everything said about companies and private individuals, both good and bad.

But now a new generation of online reputation managers promises to clean up your record on the web.

The 21st-Century equivalent of a PR consultant, their job is to shape a company or person's web image by promoting the positive and burying the negative.

For a fee, they will monitor what is written about clients and drown out unwanted comments or photographs by creating or sourcing a barrage of positive Google-friendly content.

Hidden evidence

Clients are typically private companies who want to ensure potential clients get a good first impression of the organisation when they do an online search; or celebrities and private individuals who want to clean up their online personas when going for a new job.

One of those firms specialising in cleaning up your online profile is California-based Reputation Defender.

"Today, every life transaction, hiring, dating, getting insurance, applying for university, is directly affected by a search engine," said the firm's chief executive Michael Fertik.

"You must make sure that people who see your online resume - effectively, the first page of a Google search for your name - see positive, truthful and highly relevant information about you," he added.

Social media consultant Suw Charman-Anderson agreed that what people see and say about you online can have a major impact.

"Whether you are a company or a private individual, no-one can afford to ignore their online reputation," she said.

Anonymous

By the very nature of the internet, people can say pretty much anything about anyone with little in the way of repercussion.

Many posts are written anonymously and hosts are not regarded as legally responsible for what users post on their sites.

Image caption All of Mr Benn's profiles can be found online

This information acts as a "permanent memory" that can come back to haunt people years later.

With search engines getting more powerful and potential employers, clients and partners plugged in to the internet, the whole world can access that potentially damaging information at the touch of a button.

A recent Microsoft study showed that 78% of job recruiters conduct internet background checks on their clients.

What started as a niche market has exploded. There are now many firms offering to improve your online persona. They include Online Reputation Manager, Reputation Hawk, Done! SEO Services and Reputation Management Partners.

While the trend began in America, companies such as Reputation Professor have since been established in the UK.

But not everyone is in favour of manipulating the information available in cyberspace.

Rewriting history

Critics say the practice is unethical and dishonest.

"Sometimes a company has bad reviews and it deserves those reviews," said Ms Charman-Anderson.

"If that is the case, those companies would be better off spending their time and money addressing the complaints."

Mike Hughes, a reputation correspondent with Reputation Management Partners (RMP), insists that they screen all potential clients.

"If you are an unethical company then we don't want to work with you," said Mr Hughes.

"Often clients come to us when a competitor has gone online and posted a bad report about them to try to damage their business."

The company's fees range from $100 (£64) a month for a private client or small business to up to $250,000 (£160,000) for large corporations with many employees and products to manage.

Image caption For a price, reputation managers try and put the balance of online opinion in your favour.

Elsewhere prices vary from as little as $10 to as much as $30,000 a month according to the complexity of the case.

Typically it takes six months to clean up a client's online persona.

Online reputation managers work by pushing offending material down off the first couple of pages of search results - research shows 90% of users don't look past the first page.

Clients of Done! SEO Services include a businessman in his 40s who was convicted of a drink driving offence in his teens.

He approached the company because references to the incident were still coming up in Google searches of his name, affecting his professional reputation.

"In a case like that we can really make a difference. But if there's an intrinsic problem with a company or a product and a lot of people are posting negative comments then it becomes very difficult, even impossible, to mount a campaign," says Christian Neeser, director of search engine optimisation at Done! SEO Services.

In some instances, online reputation managers will approach the host of the offending material and ask that specific content is destroyed.

The removal of content varies from polite requests to remove the offending items to lawyers' letters.

Though this approach is generally cheaper, it can make the problem worse by antagonising the person who posted the original criticism or complaint.

Susan Alpert runs her own catering firm. She recently had her online persona detoxed after an ex-boyfriend turned nasty and started anonymously posting negative information about her company online.

"I'm just starting out in business, I can't afford to have people reading bad stuff about me before they've even met me," says Ms Alpert.

Six weeks since she hired an online reputation manager, she is pleased with the results. But, with her ex-boyfriend continuing to post, she fears the service could end up costing her a lot of money in the long run.

And in the world of online reputation recovery, there are no guarantees.

Experts advise individuals and companies to take a pro-active approach.

Instead of sitting back and waiting for others to create an online reputation for you, they recommend regularly taking to the web to trumpet your own achievements.

Said Ms Hughes: "When it comes to your online reputation, there's no such thing as too positive."

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