In the past year, I've become increasingly interested in the world of online reputation management and helping executives and other professionals to counteract negative articles, blog posts, and other troubling web content. A couple of things have caught my attention. The first is that almost everyone I speak with has a story (often a horror story) about how a friend or colleague felt victimized by negative online content. Negative reviews impacted business, social media missteps hurt an applicant's chances of getting a job, and online stories (true or otherwise) injured people personally and professionally. The prevalence of this has surprised me.
The second thing that caught my attention was the fact that so many professional people have no control of their online reputation--on purpose.
While rare, I still meet executives whose companies don't have websites. And many professionals proudly say that they aren't on Facebook or Twitter and don't pay much attention to their LinkedIn profiles. They believe that the less information about them online the better, and this is often paired with an opinion that social media wastes time or is invasive. The strategy--if you can call it that--appears to be that they believe they can control what is said about them online by saying very little. They believe that they can be "off the grid."
But then something goes wrong, and they find themselves knee deep in an online problem without an Internet presence to leverage in their defense.
In one case, a successful executive found himself in a bad relationship with an extremely bitter yet web-savvy woman. He said one thing, and she said another; but she said it online, and all of a sudden, he was trying to explain what happened to his friends and family, who were seeing salacious accusations online that were now dominating search results for the guy's name. Because he had no real online presence and was "off the grid," the only information anyone was seeing online was bad.
So what did this guy do? He called an online reputation management company, and they started a suppression campaign. This entailed trying to flood the search engines (which means Google) with positive content about the guy; this would "push down" the negative stuff--hopefully. But guess what? The first thing the suppression companies did was create social media accounts for him on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and so on. Yes, these are the very sites the guy had been avoiding while he was out selling his wares, making his millions, and focusing intently on his company.
The Double-Edged Sword Known as Authority
While the guy was ignoring social media, these sites had climbed the ranks to become the most authoritative properties on the Internet. More people visit Facebook than any other place on the web, and Twitter and LinkedIn are not far behind. This concept of authority is extremely important when one is dealing with online reputation situations. You see, your profiles on Facebook and Twitter usually outperform your company site on Google searches. Even the Twitter page for Warren Buffett pops up at number five on Google, ahead of BerkshireHathaway.com. The "Oracle of Omaha" last posted one of his five tweets to his 930,000 followers last February. Social media sites remain a powerful force in influencing search results.
Some People Have a Problem with Authority
Yet, in many instances, the online problem has a higher authority than your Twitter page--or any other page, for that matter. How Google determines authority in search results is not a topic that I can address. Algorithms and I do not speak each other's unspoken language. What I do know is that, sometimes, a news story or prominent blog post finds a home on page one of your search results, and suppression tactics don't do any good. In this case, you need to engage a specialist who can dig in and look at all possible options--legal, covert ops or otherwise.
The moral of the story is that being "off the grid" may seem like a good idea, but it may come back to haunt you if something goes wrong online. Just as every business needs a reputational firewall, every professional person should take control of their online reputation as a key part of their career advancement strategy.
This post originally appeared on DavidPRblog.com.