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Paying For an Online Reputation: Fair, Or Gaming the System?

For everything we do now -- from scheduling a mover to choosing a restaurant for a first date -- we turn to the Web. Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, Citysearch and even Google immediately pull up reviews and hear what the collective voice of the Internet has to say. In fact, when scheduling a doctor, your author crosschecks what her insurance provides with what the consensus says; negative reviews are a big, fat red flag.

While businesses and providers have always had word-of-mouth reputations, these days, with Google caches and irate Yelpers, negative reviews can leave indelible marks. The New York Times tracks those who have been burned by Google: a man trying to erase his history with his ex-wife online, a doctor targeted by a consumer advocacy site, and a former sex columnist that was targeted by Gawker. Google them, and you'll see all sorts of sordid gossip. That's where companies like Reputation.com or Metal Rabbit Media come in, to erase the past to which the Internet so firmly clings.

Experts "game" search engines, pushing unsavory hits lower and trying to hunt down and delete caches. Bryce Tom of Metal Rabbit told the Times that individuals have an easier experience than celebrities, whom he charges a hefty sum for "reactive" (going after a specific news item or review) or "proactive" (general reputation management) services.

This is a service for those who can afford it; you pay to get less bad press. But even though no one we personally know has (yet) been on the losing end of an exposé, the Web is supposed to be the great democratizer as an unfettered source of information. When the financial crisis began its fallout, would we have wanted those responsible to be able to hide their online reputations? If a doctor has unethical practices or a host of dissatisfied patients, wouldn't we want to know? That may be the unfortunate but fair reality of the Internet. The single voices of wronged consumers or individuals can snowball into a collective roar -- that is, until someone pays to have their tarnished rep wiped clean.

Of course, Yelp isn't always right on (disgruntled patrons do not always make for honest reviewers), but perhaps that is the responsibility of the conscious, careful consumer who turns to the 'Net for the inside scoop. Not only must we now research what is best for our particular needs, but we need to read between the lines of what our search engines are telling us, too.

Tags: google, new york times, NewYorkTimes, online reputation, OnlineReputation, reputation, search engine optimization, search engines, SearchEngineOptimization, SearchEngines, seo, top, web, yelp, yelp reviews, YelpReviews