Unemployment is climbing, but at least one sector is burgeoning:

Online reputation management (ORM) has become a $5 billion industry, comprising hundreds of companies devoted to monitoring, repairing, improving and policing the reputation of

Fake Reviews getting Googles eye

Fake Reviews getting Googles eye

individuals and businesses online.

Many of these providers are legitimate. Many more, however, are creating more harm than they solve through dishonest and even illegal practices such as flooding the web with phony news releases, accolades, awards and counterfeit customer reviews meant to falsely spur buyer confidence or to push negative information aside.

Until recently, the web universe has appeared to be helpless against the floods of bad actors. In fact, research indicates that many of the biggest customers for fake reviews and spammy reputation repair postings are the victims of defamation themselves, or people who’ve experienced isolated episodes of bad press, who believed they had no other way to contend with the negative information and move on.

But thankfully, signs of hope are emerging:

  • In September, New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman slapped 19 fake review companies with fines totaling $350,000. “Courts are finding fake reviews equivalent to doing false advertising,” Gibson says.
  • Review sites are getting increasingly sophisticated at detecting false reviews through software filters that detect issues such as reviewers whose opinions consistently run counter to the majority, or who create multiple reviews for the same company from a single IP address, or for multiple reviews that share the same phrases and typos.
  • The media is jumping into the act: Articles such as “Scrubbed” in NY Magazine are seeking out and exposing organizations who specialize in gathering excerpts from credible sites to create bogus news and obscure websites meant to shore up the image of high net worth clients who’ve suffered reputational hits.
  • For the first time, Google is taking a more visible role in online reputation management, as reported by Search Engine Journal on October 16. In a video shared by SEJ, Google’s head of Webspam Matt Cutts addresses Online Reputation Management (ORM) directly. Increasingly, Google is netting out and discounting the sneaky link-building tactics of ORM practitioners who are attempting to bury bad news, the video says.


What can businesses and consumers do?

The good news is that reputation management attorneys are becoming more skilled at vetting out the information that is likely to meet the legal definition of defamation if tested in court and are increasingly efficient at getting the bad content removed from its source.

It is also getting easier to locate publishers of false information through their IP addresses (and some sites even publish the information directly). In the cases where a cluster of negative reviews appears suddenly, victims may often have an instinct or at least a fair idea of who is perpetrating the information, Gibson says, making it easier to locate the sources and get the activities stopped.

With this knowledge, even without a court order, the team is successful in getting sites and perpetrators to un-publish false information in many cases.

Sites such as RipOffReport.com, however, continue to present a uniquely difficult problem in that RipOffReport declares full ownership of all information posted. Under current law, this prevents attorneys from successfully getting defamatory information removed (although for a fee of thousands of dollars a company can participate in a “corporate advocacy program” that allows them to publish information above the negative item after agreeing to provide prompt reaction to customer complaints and a written commitment to exemplary customer service, according to a Forbes.com article by contributor Adam Tanner earlier this year).

In these cases, Gibson and his team work to obtain a court order of defamation they can use to persuade the primary search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing), to “de-index” the items (a process that Google, in particular, is handling increasingly quickly). While a consumer could still find the information on RipOffReport.com, in this case, it will no longer be findable within an Internet search.

As to how Gibson advises clients to deal with RipOffReport information that is inflammatory but doesn’t necessarily meet the full criteria of defamation, how should the companies affected respond? Whether to post a response or not is an individual decision, he says, that depends on the nature of the situation at hand and the desire of the company. Regardless, however, clients can ease the situation to the greatest degree possible by engaging in genuine earned media placements and reviews.

What about people who have lost job opportunities due to their appearance for past transgressions on mugshot websites? The notorious sites such as MugShots.com, while definitely problematic for the people who appear on them, are not defamatory, Gibson notes. Legal efforts to close or restrict these sites are meeting with difficulty so far as journalists and citizens push to protect the rights of these sites to publish prior arrest information as a question of freedom of the press and as a First Amendment protection.

However, the practice of charging “extortion” fees for mugshot removal (particularly as the items quickly re-emerge on sister sites along with additional offers of removal in exchange for additional fees) is progressively shrinking the traffic and strength of these sites as payment providers such as PayPal, MasterCard, American Express and Discover find the business practices of these sites so abhorrent they are severing their payment services ties, as reported by the New York Times. (VISA has not entirely removed service as of yet but is urging merchant banks to examine the business practices of these sites closely before agreeing to provide payment service, the article says).

Google’s Matt Cutt provides input as well, advising merchants and individuals to produce fair and relevant content as the best strategy for pushing negative information down. He notes that if your company qualifies for a Wikipedia entry, for example, you should place one, as these entries contain credible information and naturally appear first in search engine results with no need for manipulation.

LinkedIn profiles rank highly as well (for both individuals and companies), providing yet another means of naturally placing positive and credible information at the top of the Google search result stack. Blogs, columns, and genuine news and press should receive high Google marks.

As final advice, Google’s Cutts suggests in his video the greatest ORM protection of all: behaving in a way that is genuinely worthy of a good reputation. He vows that Google will continue aggressive efforts to find and discount the “black hat” methods of attempting to manipulate search engine results.