November 23, 2013

Maintaining Your Professional Reputation Online

"Matt Cordell the worst lawyer in the state of North Carolina.  I don't know how he graduated from law school.  Plus, he's ugly and has no fashion sense."
What would you do if this, or something like it, were written about you and posted on the Internet for all the world to see?  Ignore it?  Respond with an explanation of why the poster was wrong?  Sue the poster?  Threaten the website host with a lawsuit?
As a professional, your reputation is among your most important assets.  Although many of us depend heavily on direct referrals from satisfied customers and other respected professionals, more and more people are turning to the Internet when searching for, or vetting, a professional. 
The Internet has radically decentralized and democratized the flow of information.  Although this affords opportunities for us, it also subjects us to public criticism in more ways than ever before.  Most of the professionals I interact with are smart, diligent people who go to great lengths to provide excellent customer service.  At some point, many of us will find ourselves in a position adverse to a vindictive person, and many of us will eventually make the mistake of agreeing to work with an unreasonable client.  If you haven't yet been the subject of a negative online review, tweet, blog post, or social media post, just wait — it may be coming.  Perhaps you have avoided becoming the subject of negative comments on the Internet so far, but it is unreasonable to believe it could never happen.  

Though there are many things you can do to minimize the risk of a negative online review, it is not a risk that can be eliminated.  If good customer service and ethical conduct alone are not sufficient to avoid all negative online comments, we must ask ourselves two important questions:  
(i)                 What can I do now to prepare for a negative comment about me or my professional services on the Internet; and,
(ii)               What can I do after the fact to minimize the impact to my reputation?

The Best Defense Is Preparation

The most important step you can take right now to address the risk of a future negative online comment is to saturate the Internet with high-visibility, positive information about yourself and your professional services.  You want the negative comment to be a mere needle in a haystack of positive content so that the negative comment is either unlikely to be found or at least outweighed by a mountain of positive publicity.  If you wait until you need positive publicity to begin generating it, you will have already lost.  (Just like your professional network, by the time you need it, it is too late to start building.)  You need to establish a positive professional reputation online now, before you need it to combat a negative comment.

There are a number of ways to establish a positive online reputation, some of which are fairly intuitive and some of which may not be.  The most obvious step is simply to have an online presence.  If there is nothing about you on the Internet and someone makes a negative comment, the first thing everyone searching the Internet will find out about you will be the negative comment.  You don't to create a circumstance in which someone's first impression of you will be the rantings of a bitter or unreasonable person.

Having a webpage, however, is probably not enough to give you the online presence and search engine result ranking you will want to have.  Search engines — especially Google, which accounts for a massive share of all US-based Internet searches — give priority in ranking results to recent information.  Therefore, review sites, blogs, and social media tend to get preferable rankings as compared to static webpages.  Accordingly, a ten-year-old company webpage lacking dynamic, updated content probably will not outrank an online review on a popular customer review website that mentions you by name.  A much more effective way to ensure that your name is associated with positive comments in search results is to consistently generate new content online, preferably using your own website (or blog) as well as other platforms.

Go Ahead…Google Yourself

"Google" yourself.  Then "Bing" yourself.  Go ahead — there is no shame in it.  In fact, in this era, it is almost irresponsible not to do so.  Searching for your own name on the major search engines (i.e., Google and Bing), with and without key terms describing your services or products, is an important part of understanding how customers and potential employers find information about you.  (Be sure to log out of the search engine and clear your cookies before running the search so that your results are not skewed by information the search engines already know about your search preferences.)  Do you appear on the first page of results?  Go through the first five pages.  Is there any negative information?  Is there any outdated information?  Do your competitors show up? 

Now that you know what your search results are like, it will be important to engage some search engine optimization ("SEO") techniques and monitor your online presence.  To monitor yourself online, repeat the exercise of searching for yourself and related terms on a regular basis — perhaps even monthly. 

Next, set up an "alert" using Google Alerts so that newly-created content using your name from all over the Internet will be brought directly to your attention.  If you are not familiar with Google Alerts, do a YouTube search for "Google Alerts" and watch an official video that explains this useful tool.  

You will quickly find tens of thousands of sources of advice on how to optimize your search engine results.  Many of them are outdated or simply wrong.  Some are even harmful.  Search engines are constantly adjusting their algorithms to prioritize the content they deem most relevant to their users and to penalize those who spread unwanted material ("spam").  Right now, the most reliable step you can take to optimize your search engine results is to generate relevant, timely content and distribute it using social media and similar websites.  
There are many more sophisticated SEO strategies that can be effective, but they tend to become outdated fairly quickly, and describing them is beyond the scope of this article.  Focus on the basics first:  Create interesting, useful content; share it with the world on a regular basis using a blog or other website; and share it with your network using social media.  In addition, you can curate content created by colleagues and others to share with your network.  Eventually, you will find that your search results begin to populate with interesting, relevant content that casts you in a favorable light.

When The Negative Comment Arises

For those of us who have long careers ahead of us, it seems almost inevitable that someone, somewhere, someday will post a negative remark about us online.  Our response, if any, should be appropriate to the circumstances.  I am reminded of Bruce Lee's famous remarks about a "mind like water."  Water ripples in proportion to the size and force of the stone thrown into it and then quickly returns to a state of calm.  Your response should be exactly proportional to the harm — no more and no less — and you should promptly return to a state of equilibrium. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Don't Feed The Trolls

Often, the worst thing you can do in response to a negative comment is to acknowledge it.  Some negative comments are nothing more than an attempt to bait you into a response.  Generally, your response will merely draw attention to the comment and give the commenter some credibility.  Therefore, you should ordinarily refrain from responding in the same online forum. 
Genuinely Harmful Comments

Occasionally, a comment could be so harmful to your professional reputation and so prominently featured in search results that it warrants a response.  Remember that you are likely to amplify the perceived harm in your own mind, so, before you conclude that a remark is worthy of a response, confer with some objective, trusted advisors.  If they are in agreement, proceed with an appropriate response.  The extent and form of the response will depend on the forum and the nature of the harmful comment. 

Generally, you are well-advised to communicate directly with the commenter to demand that the false or defamatory comment about you be removed (assuming you can identify the poster from the post).  When an online comment is not clearly false but is nonetheless harmful, and the poster refuses to remove it voluntarily or you cannot identify the poster, you may have success dealing with the provider of the forum. 

Comments on consumer review websites tend to achieve high search rankings and, therefore, high visibility.  Some consumer review websites allow offended parties to challenge negative reviews.  However, most review sites are less than helpful.  Google says that it provides a mechanism to flag inappropriate business reviews, but it "[does] not arbitrate disputes and more often than not, we leave the review up." Yelp, a popular review website, claims it will not remove a negative review unless the review violates the terms of use on its face, such as a review that explicitly states that it relies on secondhand information.  Comments on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are subject to policies and terms of use, and most provide a mechanism to report and limit offensive behavior.  Usually this process involves simply reporting a malicious or abusive comment to the provider of the social media platform.  LinkedIn's Use Agreement prohibits "unprofessional behavior by posting inappropriate, inaccurate or objectionable content."  It also prohibits the use of LinkedIn to "harass, abuse or harm another person" or post "unlawful, libelous, abusive, obscene, discriminatory or otherwise objectionable content."  The LinkedIn User Agreement further provides that "LinkedIn, in its sole discretion, may…remove content" and "restrict, suspend or close an account."  If you raise an objection with LinkedIn regarding another's comments about you, you will do well to adopt some of the forgoing key terms into your complaint. Facebook allows you to report a post "if you do not like [it]," which is not exactly restrictive.  The criteria Facebook will use in evaluating the reported post, however, are ambiguous.  According to Facebook's Community Standards:
Facebook does not tolerate bullying or harassment. We allow users to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but take action on all reports of abusive behavior directed at private individuals.

Therefore, though Facebook will allow you to report essentially anything, the post must generally rise to the level of bullying or harassment before Facebook will intervene.  In addition, Facebook allows you to "block" a user, which will prevent the user from being able to tag you in a post.  There appears to be no limit to your ability to use this feature.
Not All Pros Are Professionals
There are a number of reputation management companies in the marketplace now that claim to be able to build or rehabilitate one's online reputation.  Be careful about these companies.  Some of them do no more than "spam" the Internet with hollow blog comments and inane social media posts in a near-blind attempt to flood the Web with mentions of your name.  Search engines such as Google are on to these ham-fisted tactics and may penalize you in search rankings as a result.  For example, a Michigan law firm paid nearly $50,000 to an SEO company to improve its ranking in search results.  In a recent lawsuit against the SEO company, the law firm alleged that not only did the SEO company fail to improve the law firm's search engine ranking, it also actually caused harm.  If you must use a third party to assist you in this area, choose one with experience in your field and with credible references, and be ready to collaborate extensively to ensure that the content published on your behalf is relevant to your audience and reflects your own standards of professionalism. 
Keep Calm And Carry On
Finally, try not to get too distracted by a negative comment.  It is probably nowhere near as monumental as you think it is.  Rather than obsessing about it, focus on all the positive developments in your career and life and how you can enhance those positive items.  Think for a moment about five people whose life and work you admire.  With a little research online, you can probably find plenty of criticism about each and every one of them.  Criticism — even valid criticism — is often a sign you are doing enough right to have garnered attention in the first instance.  Remember, the only people who escape all criticism in this world are those who do nothing, say nothing, and achieve nothing.  


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