Reputation.com CEO Fertik on How to Protect Your Online Reputation

PHOTO: Michael Fertik
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Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, answers questions about risks to your reputation in the digital age -- and what you can do about it.

How has the Internet changed the rules of reputation? On We Find Them we examine real-world cases of individuals' reputations being ruined online. As much as we'd hope these dramatic stories were isolated incidents, unfortunately they represent the pervasive dangers of the cyberworld. More and more people are having their identity stolen online, suffering aggressive cyberbullying and/or being gossiped about on international blogs. The Internet has taken anonymous gossip and made it permanent and loud, and has made it appear authoritative and factual. In short, the Internet has turned everything we know about how reputations are made on its head.

Reputation used to be a two-way street. If people wanted to gossip about you, they risked their own reputations by doing so. Now they can write anonymous comments on thousands of sites, or even make an entire blog dedicated to spreading lies. Most of the time, the author of a false or malicious comment or blog remains unidentified. Even worse, someone could impersonate you online. Imagine waking up one day to find that your colleagues think you make inappropriate remarks or spew racist insults.

Reputation used to be local. For most people, reputation was shaped by the members of their community and stayed within the confines of the community. Now the Internet allows anonymous comments to travel at the speed of a keystroke to the edges of the world. It doesn't matter if you're in Alaska or Albania -- you can write comments that will be seen worldwide. In We Find Them we travel to Africa, Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere to show that online attacks know no boundaries.

Reputation used to be temporary. Memories of past triumphs and mistakes faded over time. Now everything online is instantly indexed, cached and often permanently archived. In the past, gossip would end with a classroom note being tossed in the trash. Now Google finds the electronic equivalent of classroom notes sent years ago, makes them permanent and displays them on the web forever. The juicier and more salacious the note, the likelier it is to rise to the top of Google's results. Thanks to the Internet, we have lost our ability to forget.

Reputation has become shallow. Google's top search results for your name can be dominated by one 15-second video clip or one news story, crowding out everything else you've done over the course of your life. And all too often these top results are the most tabloid-oriented stories, because they get the most clicks. Even if the information is true, there is more to you than one event at one point in time; you are a whole person with a long and rich history. The problem is compounded by the way people search: 84 percent of web users do not go beyond the first page of search engine results, and the top three search results in Google get 79 percent of clicks.

Why do people attack each other online? People attack each other online for all the same reasons that people attack each other offline. But online attacks are an order of magnitude more dangerous because of the power of anonymity combined with the infinite memory of the Internet.

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