Web Cleaners: They Exist!

Following my post last Tuesday on teenagers and how they live their online lives very publicly, I was predicting the arrival a new job: the Web cleaner. To my surprise (you’ve got to love the clarity of my crystal ball!), the Washington Post talked on Monday about calling in pros to refine your Google image.

The article exposes the story of Sue Scheff, a consultant to parents of troubled teens, who came under cyber-defamation attacks in 2002. She would type her name in Google and find many pages attacking her personally. The article continues: “The stream of negative comments began in 2002 after a woman who had sought advice from Scheff turned on her. The postings appeared on PTA Web sites in Florida, where Scheff lives. On bulletin boards and online forums. There were even YouTube videos threatening her. She sued for defamation and won an $11.3 million verdict, but the attacks only got worse. In December, Scheff turned to ReputationDefender, a year-old firm that promised to help her cleanse her virtual reputation. She no longer dreads a Google search on her name. Most of the links on the all-important first page are to her own Web site and a half-dozen others created by ReputationDefender to promote her work on teen pregnancy and teen depression. “They created Sue-Scheff.net,” she said. “They created SueScheff.net. They created SueScheff.org. . . . They created my MySpace account, for God’s sake. I didn’t know how to do any of this stuff.”

Additional article highlights:

Charging anything from a few dollars to thousands of dollars a month, companies such as International Reputation Management, Naymz and ReputationDefender don’t promise to erase the bad stuff on the Web. But they do assure their clients of better results on an Internet search, pushing the positive items up on the first page and burying the others deep. (…)

Companies like IRM try to outthink Google. Search engines comb the Web with complex and ever-shifting algorithms, evaluating relevance and authority by looking at many factors: Is this a government Web site? How many people have linked to it? And so on. The point is, said ReputationDefender founder Michael Fertik, “Google’s not in business to give you the truth, it’s in business to give what you think is relevant.” The goal is to get Google and other search engines to seize on relevant sites that contain positive information on their clients and to downplay the rest. Google does not object in principle to people adding positive content to outrank the negative. But a spokeswoman said in an e-mail, “if you use spammy and manipulative techniques to get this positive content to rank highly, we may take action on it.”

What it means: wow! this is going to be big business in a few years. I would suggest that everyone working in search engine optimization today starts thinking about how this could positively impact their business.