June 23, 2011— -- 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.
Most rational people would not level an unprovoked insult to another's face. But online it is very easy to type harsh or mean words without realizing that they are affecting a real person. It's like "road rage" -- people do things online they would never do face-to-face.
There are also thoughtless actions that start without an intended victim but end up hurting people just as much as intentional attacks do. For example, Dayna Kempson and Nikki Catsouras were both young victims of separate car accidents. In both cases horrific images of their bodies in the wreckage were sent around the Internet, sometimes as a prank, other times out of morbid curiosity. Once the images had gone viral. Mean-spirited and insensitive users worldwide began making comments about the victims' families, and some even sent the images to the victims' parents.
What are some of the most common mistakes people make online that can hurt their reputation? People assume that because they live a decent life, they have nothing to worry about online. This is just plain false. Anyone can wake up to find that search engines are highlighting inaccurate or misleading information about them, and anyone can be the victim of an attack from anywhere in the world.
Consider collateral reputation damage: Even if your name is spotless, you can still be associated with the negative content regarding a friend or colleague. Your pristine online image may be destroyed for you when a friend or acquaintance posts indiscreet photos from your trip to Las Vegas, or when your name gets dragged into a lawsuit about the company you work for. You may even make headlines you receive unsolicited pictures from a scantily clad politician (read: Weinergate). The list of ways to have your reputation distorted or destroyed by others is never-ending, the possibilities are infinite and unimaginable.
Another big mistake is going into "ignore mode." If a friend brought up your college police record at a dinner party or a colleague referenced your divorce filing at the water cooler, surely you'd respond. But on the web, we often resign ourselves to powerlessness. We assume we have no options for control. Although it's not a good idea to get involved in an online conversation regarding negative or unwelcome content, that doesn't mean you're without recourse. I encourage people to be proactive. Stay informed about how you appear online by setting up a ReputationAlert, a free service that notifies you every time your name is referenced online. Think of it as Google Alerts on steroids. And if there's content about you that's unflattering or inaccurate, know that you have options. You can't control this content on your own, but you can turn to online reputation management professionals such as Reputation.com for help.
What are your top three tips for maintaining a positive online presence? 1. Claim your name on as many websites as possible, including professional and social networking sites. Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter offer custom URLs and often appear very high in search results. Reserving your name will make it easier for you to establish your own identity, and make it more difficult for others to impersonate you. Make sure you use your full name or real business name; being known as "Writergurl26" does not help establish meaningful search results associated with your name.
2. Diligently and persistently search for your name on the web. Googling yourself is helpful, but your search should include the "deep web" -- the databases and private sites that Google does not index. It's important to know which databases are listing information about you. For example, check sites like Facebook and Twitter to see what people are saying about you. Business owners should scour Yelp and Citysearch regularly for signs of negativity. Know which people-search databases are revealing information about you and your family. Our free monitoring service (available here) informs you of all the places you appear online and sends email alerts every time new content crops up.
3. Resist the urge to engage in an online argument. It can be tempting to voice your opinion in a discussion forum, especially if an anonymous person is critical of you, but usually it is best to stay out of it. Fights escalate, and everyone involved ends up looking bad. Instead, turn to professionals for help and guidance.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.