Kate Murphy has found a chap called Kent Campbell who, for between $500 and $10,000 per month, will try to make sure that the first page of search results, when someone Googles your name, will include lots of nice positive things, and exclude any bloggers with an ax to grind. One doctor paid Campbell $30,000; it’s unclear if the blogger saying nasty things about the doctor ever did drop off the first page of search results, but it’s certainly clear that Campbell’s on to a good thing here.
"It can take anywhere from four months to a year to repair an online reputation," says Murphy, which immediately set off my antennae. As any blogger knows, Google loves fresh content. If you blog something and then Google it the following day, there’s a good chance – especially if it isn’t breaking news being covered all over the rest of the Web – that your blog entry will be at or near the top of the search results. But do the same Google search four months to a year later, and the chances are your blog entry, now stale, will be nowhere to be found.
In other words, Campbell could show his clients reasonably impressive results if all he did was take their money and spend it on fine wines and exotic cars. Beyond that, his business seems to be a pretty standard SEO (search engine optimization) gig – something which Google, for one, tends to frown upon, and which has never been particularly respectable online.
And Campbell’s positively benign compared to the other major character in Murphy’s piece, David Pollack. Pollack’s a lawyer famous for winning an $11.3 million online defamation suit; what’s less well known is that the defendant, destitute, never even turned up, and that none of the money was, to my knowledge, collected.
Siccing lawyers on bloggers is a dangerous strategy which is prone to backfiring just as often as it succeeds. For every blogger who reacts meekly to a cease-and-desist letter, taking down a post or even offering up an apology, there’s another one who reacts angrily and who redoubles their efforts to besmirch the online reputation of the person who’s bullying them. And given the First Amendment, it’s very hard indeed to successfully prosecute someone who’s not making money from their accusations and who is willing to fight back.
Which means that Pollack and his ilk are basically professional bullies: they tend to come on very strong and win by bluster much more than on any real merits.
But what’s most astonishingly missing from this piece about "internet reputation management" is any idea that the best way to deal with negative feedback might be to engage that person, rather than try to somehow make them go away. An angry and ignored blogger can be very destructive to your online reputation, true. But if you reach out with good will and respond helpfully to their complaints, you’ll be astonished at how fast they can change their tune.
According to Murphy’s argument, the blogger writing negative things about the doctor "was a random guy expressing his opinion". In that kind of situation, a little bit of outreach is generallly a much better – not to mention much cheaper – idea than spending many months and $30,000 trying to push the blog onto the second page of Google results, or embarking upon an even more expensive legal strategy. Constructive engagement won’t work all the time. But then again, the alternatives work even less frequently.