Forget your references, your résumé, and the degree on your wall. “Whatever’s in the top 10 results of a search for your name on Google—that’s your [professional] image,” says Chris Martin, founder of the small internet company Reputation Hawk, which is one of several outfits that focus on keeping that top 10 clean for their clients.
For victims of cyber-slurs, cleanup doesn’t necessarily mean removing bad press. Companies like eVisibility, Converseon, and 360i concentrate on generating positive content—but not too much at one time. If Google detects a sudden flood of suspicious Web postings, it will assign them low trust scores, preventing them from rising to the top of search results.
Nino Kader, CEO of International Reputation Management, uses a positive-content approach, calling its strategy a mix of “old-school PR and high tech.” The firm builds social profiles (on MySpace or Facebook) for clients and promotes them to blogs; it also drafts news releases and solicits coverage from traditional press outlets. Scrubbers generally work on retainer and charge anywhere from $500 to $10,000 a month.
A handful of scrubbers do try to actually remove negative content, using coercion, compromise, and occasionally cash. A first step is to contact the website and ask that the harmful post be removed. “For us to pay the site for removal is very uncommon, but less than 1 percent of the time, we have to do it,” says ReputationDefender CEO Michael Fertik, whose company charges a monthly fee and $30 for each item they persuade a website to remove. If a site refuses to erase an offending post, the next step is to negotiate a compromise. Ask the site administrator to substitute a screenshot for the actual text of the harmful post (a screenshot is an image, so the words no longer register as text to Google and won’t come up in a search).
When it comes to your online image, these companies argue that no one can afford to shrug off a slight. As Fertik says, “The people who are reading stuff about you on the internet don’t have to believe what they read about you beyond a reasonable doubt.” They just have to believe it enough to not hire you.