Most savvy consumers would never do business with an unfamiliar company without first running a quick Internet background check. Ten seconds on Google can ward off months of irritation. Negative reviews and news stories about companies are easy to find, and can persuade a buyer to beware.
But that strategy might not always work. Companies are now hiring search engine optimization firms to fight back against their Google-given reputations. Recently, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, was the target of one such "make the negative story disappear" campaign.
DONE! SEO (search engine optimization) is a Manhattan Beach, Calif., company that says it can improve any company's search engine results ranking. But on its "search engine reputation management" page, it promises quite a bit more, saying it can make negative stories and comments go away.
"Our Search Engine Reputation Management strategy is very simple: Displace -- push down -- the negative listings with favorable ones and ones that you can control or influence," it says. "DONE! SEO helps make sure that your company and key executives are being portrayed favorably online by burying the negatives and maintaining a positive online image."
The DONE! SEO Web site lists six particularly troublesome "problem sites." Among them is ConsumerWebWatch.org, the Internet arm of Consumers Union.
"Having a listing on ConsumerWebWatch.org that shows up on the first page of Google for a search for your company name can be devastating to your business," it says.
ConsumerWebWatch director Beau Brendler was not amused when he found the site.
"Trying to make a buck by burying legitimate information that consumers can use to make a decision, that's a problem," Brendler said. "If everybody games the system, then search engines will become not much more than yellow pages."
Officials from DONE! SEO counter that they aren't trying to bury legitimate information. Their main concern is the proliferation of user-generated review sites like RipOffReport.com or My3Cents.com that allow consumers to anonymously leave nasty comments about companies.
"There are particularly mean-spirited bloggers," who can ruin a company's reputation with one well-placed negative posting, said Ben Padnos, CEO of DONE! SEO. "We're trying to level the playing field."
Webloyalty at center of controversy?
It appears ConsumerWebWatch ended up in DONE! SEO's sights when the company was hired by Internet marketing firm WebLoyalty.com. Two years ago, ConsumerWebWatch published an investigation of Webloyalty that accused the firm of using misleading tactics to sign up customers and charge a monthly subscription fee to their credit cards.
Webloyalty spokeswoman Beth Kitchener declined to comment for this report. In the WebWatch article, the firm denied it had engaged in improper behavior.
It's not clear how well Done! SEO's tactics work. The unfavorable ConsumerWebWatch story still appears as the third link in Google and Yahoo results in a search for Webloyalty. But on MSN's Live Search, the WebWatch story doesn't appear until the third page of listings.
Padnos confirmed that Webloyalty was a client, but refused to discuss the WebWatch article or anything else about the work his company did on its behalf. He also declined to explain in detail the tactics used to enhance a company's search engine results. In general, though, he said it involves creating a network of Web sites using different domains owned by the company and making sure that many other sites link to the network.
"They have real, credible content, updated often," he said. "The content is really important. We are trying to play by the rules of the game from the search engines."
Like Facebook pictures, only worse
Reputation management, long only in the purview of gigantic multinational corporations, is now a new Internet buzzword. College students interested in getting a decent job are instructed to avoid any and all cameras during parties, lest a less-than-flattering photograph end up on Facebook and, ultimately, in a human-resources file. Individuals can sign up with firms with names like Reputation Defender to whisk personal attacks off search engine pages (For a great read on this service, see this piece by Forbes magazine.)
But gaming the system to push company reviews -- including investigative journalism -- out of sight on the Internet takes reputation management to a new level.
For its part, Google says reputation management is acceptable as long as companies avoid other Web no-nos, like spam.
"There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself," said a Google spokeswoman who asked not to be identified. "As far as being within our webmaster guidelines, it's the same as any other web content. If you use spammy and manipulative techniques to get this positive content to rank highly, we may take action on it. But if you can write content or have content written about yourself and have it be interesting and compelling so that people link to it, it may indeed be relevant for searches on your name or business and may be a valid search result, above the negative content."
And Padnos defends the practice of driving down Web posts written by individual consumers.
"In a lot of cases people take so much glee in negativity," he said. "Every business has something along the way with a customer ... but with anonymity (people) can post anything they want and really tarnish a company."
The battle between public relations firms and journalists is hardly new, but Brendler is worried that reputation management might tip the scales the wrong way.
"I sympathize with businesses that have to confront this issue," he said. "The state of user reviews on the Web is not pretty. There are people who give a hotel a bad review because they don't like color of the drapes, for example. ... But my concern is that there are other organizations and other journalists who do legitimate research, and as a result of these algorithms the relevance of their work decreases. It's hard enough for consumers to make decisions and find information."