I’ve a series of articles on free speech and why the internet has anything but coming very soon.  My free time has been taken up of late with a documentary I’m participating in so I will start off by apologising for the lack of updates on OpenBytes (and indeed the TechBytes audiocast).  I’ve been quite active over on G+ and the ability to simply message, link and comment from an Android Smartphone has seen me more involved over there for the past few months.

So today I look at free speech, with consideration to those companies who seek to manage it.  Before I go any further I must mention the company I highlight here (Reputation.com) has not been specific in what (if any) tactics it would employ against those who’s comments conflict with their clients “vision”.  I digress.  Here’s the history:

Over the past few months there has been an advert on a local talk radio station advertising a company called “Reputation.com” – Offering services which would appear to monitor & safeguard your online reputation. – A bad thing? Well since its taken a considerable time to get a reply from a few points I put to them, I’d expect any further answers to be equally as slow.  Here’s what the website says and I urge you to follow the link in order for you to draw your own opinions on what exactly it is that they offer.

Protect Your Online Reputation From Negative Search Results…

http://uk.reputation.com/

Obviously there is more to the site/service than merely that statement, but it sets the tone for why I was interested in what they offered.  How do they protect you from negative search results? I put the following to them:

How exactly do you achieve your goals or campaigns…. What lengths do you go to in “online reputation” and more importantly when someone exercises free speech which doesn’t favour the contract you have been given, what do you do?

I would be very interested to hear more about “reputation management”….. to me it sounds very much like hiring a shill….maybe I’m wrong there…..maybe you could elaborate?

And approximately 4 weeks later I received a response.  Presumably monitoring their own online presence is not as much of a priority as that of their clients?

Hello and apologies for our late reply.

Online reputation management encompasses a variety of activities, all conducted within an ethical framework.  An example would be helping a company to monitor and manage its online reviews. Our cloud-based platform enables real-time alerts when new reviews are posted, analysis of trends in the reviews (is sentiment changing?), and the ability to respond directly to reviews. We counsel clients in how to respond professionally and productively to resolve issues and convey responsivenss. We also help them create a culture where they proactively ask all customers to leave accurate feedback on review sites (while never paying for reviews, incentivizing customers to leave them, or writing reviews themselves). Over time, we’ve seen that this causes the reviews to come into a balance where what’s online matches the reality of the business in real life. We also remind our clients that negative reviews can also highlight genuine issues that must be addressed by the company – and people take note of responsiveness. And, of course, we don’t (and can’t) remove negative reviews. Hope this helps you.

So there is the reply.  A very polite answer which really doesn’t answer anything at all.  “Ethical framework”? – Who’s ethics are those based on? Can we see?

A “great” example is given of helping a company monitor its online reviews….what? today’s business can’t use Google? it’s really that difficult to find out the big name sites where your product will be discussed? People pay for that?

Our cloud-based platform enables real-time alerts when new reviews are posted

What sort of company/product needs realtime alerts to consumers opinions/reviews? And what would be done when a real time alert pops up that doesn’t favour the client?  Why is that sort of information needed in realtime unless the intent of their client is to somehow silence or “damage control” it?   That does though explain what I already suspected over the years of writing articles (and seeing some very strange incoming links) that this practice is certainly not unique to Reputation and its been going on for some time.

We also help them create a culture where they pro-actively ask all customers to leave accurate feedback on review sites….

What? Send them an email? Have a one time feature within the software/product for easy review?  And if the reviewer/consumer genuinely doesn’t like the product, how are you to:

Protect Your Online Reputation From Negative Search Results…

and thats the part that concerns me about services such as this.  The answers given to me in my view are vague to say the least and to me, either Reputation.com is offering services which could be done by even the most non-tech savvy person on the planet, or there are other concerning questions about services such as these.  How do you incentivize or encourage a review without an incentive? – If its a good product you don’t need to and wouldn’t need to hire a company like Reputation.com  Which then raises another question, how would they offer this:

 removing and suppressing negative content from your search results,

that’s another part of the service taken from the Reputation.com site.

So lets get this straight, they will get people to leave reviews without gifts or incentives of any kind.  They will give you realtime results and will remove and suppress negative content from search results? How? What if your product/service is not liked? Will they still suppress a clients negative remarks if the fault lies with the product?  Who knows, they haven’t elaborated on that.

I am sure Reputation.com is not unique in the service it offers, but it came to my attention as a result of local radio advert.  Does this sound like the sort of service the average listener on a local radio would want? – Very strange.

Reputation.com has over 1 million clients, in over 100 countries globally, all taking advantage of our market leading online reputation management services and patented technology.

Ensure you stay in control of how you or your business are perceived online today.

Again from the site and again raises the worrying question, how do they achieve these aims?  What are they prepared to do so that negatives are suppressed? I questioned the practice of incentivizing (and highlighted the free laptops to bloggers – https://openbytes.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/microsoftmas-come-early/

Maybe the ultimate test will be how they will (or will not) deal with this article.

Kindly Reputation.com provided another response which I quote here (paragraphing mine):

No, to clarify: you should never incentivize for reviews (even a coupon) nor should you write reviews of your business.

No, we would never employ negative tactics against posters who were critical of our clients – that’s why we counsel our clients in how to directly interact with posters in a positive, professional manner. The goal is always to resolve the issue productively. And we tell companies that reviews can showcase what you need to change – if there are consistent issues, to your point, then the reviews are accurate and highlighting problems that you need to fix. If companies show responsiveness and action, consumers tend to be more forgiving.

What we find with many of our clients is that they are small or medium businesses who are aware that they need to pay attention online but don’t have the resources, knowledge or time to do it. We can help get them started on the best approach. Frequently, these businesses have a satisfied customer base that never thinks to write reviews – so when the occasional bad review pops up, it’s not truly reflective of what the business is like in real life.

I hope my channel of communication continues with Reputation.com as there are still questions I have regarding some of the claims on their site, however it should be noted that Reputation.com is not the only company offering a service such as this and whilst this article concentrates on the rights and wrongs of monitoring and “suppressing” bad reviews/PR, there is no real indication yet as to how Reputation.com achieves this.  Maybe Reputation.com will be the company which sets an example to all others as to how these services should operate?

I’ll leave you with this quote from a previous article of mine where I reported about a blogger talking about gifts:

But if you write about Microsoft, they might even give you one for free. Is it ethical? Probably not. Is it worth something to hard-working sweat and tears bloggers? Hell yeah.

And I suggest that’s why positive reviews can often be viewed with suspicion and maybe getting any 3rd party involved in your online perception is a bad idea.  Good products and services will always shine and are not shouted down by a minority.  If many people are complaining about your product, then its you with the problem and doing anything but rectifying the product/service is not the direction you should be heading, lest you end up in the situation many Microsoft product posts are where good remarks are always labelled “shill”.

UPDATE: Thursday 4th April 2013

I received this following reply from Reputation.com which I’d like to share now (paragraphing mine):

Hi, Tim. We help clients manage and monitor their reviews and encourage their customers to post new, accurate reviews. We understand it can be surprising to some (like people web-sophisticated enough to know Usenet!) that companies might need help in this area – but did you know 60 percent of UK small businesses didn’t even have a website (according to this Guardian article? http://www.guardian.co.uk/small-business-network/2012/oct/19/businesses-need-websites). It’s an astonishing statistic and highlights the fact that many are still figuring out how best to wade in the water of the web (if you will). Perhaps then it’s not so surprising that even good businesses may be unsure how to address reviews appropriately.

Regarding the other product that you’ve asked about, we do not remove negative content ever (and thank you for highlighting this erroneous language on our website, which we’ve since removed). We help professionals and businesses establish their presence online through crafting factual content, setting them up on social media, etc. This establishes a foundation of accurate information so that when others encounter additional material, including out of date, misleading, or inaccurate information, during their research, they have a better basis to make an informed assessment. Thanks again for writing to us and all the best.

So there’s the response.  I’ve asked if a member of Reputation.com would be interested in a conversation for a piece on the TechBytes show, I hope they are as willing to engage there as they have been over the past few days.  It was also nice to see that on me highlighting potential “perception” issues of Reputation.com (most notably the wording “suppress”) they have removed the wording.  A company that does not engage in dubious tactics would not want to be associated with those that do, those I hasten to add which we will be looking at more closely in the weeks to come.  It’s seems that Reputation.com is what it says on the tin and whilst the whole issue of needing “reputation management” in the first place may seem a little wrong to people (in this age of free speech) at least Reputation.com has been quite upfront about what they will and won’t do – That’s to be applauded in itself.

Tim W

bytes4free@googlemail.com

https://plus.google.com/u/0/114824920343832764896/posts