By Susan Kinzie and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 2, 2007
At the height of the cyber-abuse, Sue Scheff, a consultant to parents of troubled teens, would type her name in a Google search box and brace herself: Up would pop page after page of attack postings.
Sue Scheff is destroying lives. She is a con. She takes kickbacks. She is the biggest fraud there ever was.
The stream of negative comments began in 2002 after a woman who had sought advice from Scheff turned on her. The postings appeared on PTA Web sites in Florida, where Scheff lives. On bulletin boards and online forums. There were even YouTube videos threatening her.
She sued for defamation and won an $11.3 million verdict, but the attacks only got worse. In December, Scheff turned to ReputationDefender, a year-old firm that promised to help her cleanse her virtual reputation. She no longer dreads a Google search on her name. Most of the links on the all-important first page are to her own Web site and a half-dozen others created by ReputationDefender to promote her work on teen pregnancy and teen depression.
"They created Sue-Scheff.net," she said. "They created SueScheff.net. They created SueScheff.org. . . . They created my MySpace account, for God's sake. I didn't know how to do any of this stuff."
Google's ubiquity as a research tool has given rise to a new industry: online identity management. The proliferation of blogs and Web sites can allow angry clients, jealous lovers or ruthless competitors to define a person's identity. Whether true or not, their words can have far-reaching effects.
Charging anything from a few dollars to thousands of dollars a month, companies such as International Reputation Management, Naymz and ReputationDefender don't promise to erase the bad stuff on the Web. But they do assure their clients of better results on an Internet search, pushing the positive items up on the first page and burying the others deep.
Still, Google is continually refining its search methods, which means that today's fix may not work tomorrow.
"This is a game that nobody can completely win," said Chris Dellarocas, a University of Maryland information systems professor.Dodging Mudballs
The e-mails from friends started showing up three years ago in the Washington lobbyist's in-basket: Have you seen this?
Over decades in the capital, she had developed a thick skin. But after she took on a foreign regime as a client, an online magazine bashed her. The story was factual, but the tone nasty. Then a blogger wrote that she slept with someone to get a big contract. A political blog posted an e-mail she had written about secret campaign strategy. Truth mixed with rumor. Rumor mixed with lies.
Concerned friends sent her the links. Potential clients would say they had read about her on the Web.
Like Scheff, she realized that the items that made her cringe came up high on the Google results page and stayed there, month after month. Her firm depended on her reputation. The lobbyist would speak only on condition of anonymity because she did not want the attacks to resume.
"There's no policing, no rules, no standards," she said. Bloggers are "cowboys," she said. "It's the wild, wild West."
Then one day she heard a talk by Nino Kader, founder of International Reputation Management (IRM) in Washington. His new company, he said, could reshape a person's online image.
She signed up.
IRM aims to get lots of information out there about clients, in various places, so that a search gives a more complete and nuanced profile of who they are. Kader started with a printout of the top 100 hits on a Google search and went through them one by one, asking whether individual results -- such as her campaign contributions -- were good, bad or neutral.
He asked what she wanted the world to know about her. Then he started digging for good things, like an op-ed piece she had written and television interviews she had given that he could post on YouTube. He pitched stories about her to various publications. And he created links from popular sites to those online stories to entice the search engine.
Now her firm's Web site is the first result and other good ones follow.
Still, a story she hates remains on the first page.
"I'm in the early stages," she said. "I've already seen progress."
Companies like IRM try to outthink Google. Search engines comb the Web with complex and ever-shifting algorithms, evaluating relevance and authority by looking at many factors: Is this a government Web site? How many people have linked to it? And so on.
The point is, said ReputationDefender founder Michael Fertik, "Google's not in business to give you the truth, it's in business to give what you think is relevant."
The goal is to get Google and other search engines to seize on relevant sites that contain positive information on their clients and to downplay the rest.
Google does not object in principle to people adding positive content to outrank the negative. But a spokeswoman said in an e-mail, "if you use spammy and manipulative techniques to get this positive content to rank highly, we may take action on it."
Some companies create promotional Web pages for their clients with coding that makes them appealing to Google or create blog pages linking to the client's own site, ensuring they'll rise to the top.Image Makeover
Geoffrey VanderPal knew politics was a nasty game, but the candidate for Nevada state treasurer wasn't prepared for the blog attacks. Supporters of his opponent posted charge after charge. He briefly considered suing.
But many of his tormentors were anonymous. And U.S. courts have generally protected Web site hosts from civil actions such as defamation, though that may be changing. Besides, he knew as a public figure he'd have a higher burden to prove libel.
When VanderPal lost the Democratic primary last August, he returned to private life as a financial planner. But the blog postings lived on, prominently, at the top of the Google results page. Potential clients avoided him.
He wanted to suppress the negative information about him, both true and false, so he turned to ReputationDefender.
The firm at first tried a low-tech approach: a polite request to a blogger to remove a post about his personal finances. But the blogger declined, saying the item was a matter of public record. Asking politely has backfired in a small number of cases, Fertik said, with Webmasters sometimes posting and mocking the requests.
So Fertik's team, which works from a Silicon Valley office, offered VanderPal its premium service, using various techniques to promote VanderPal's own site and suppress the blogs. That service now starts at $10,000.
Within weeks, VanderPal began to see "a remarkable difference." Though a few nasty comments are still up there, the first three pages are mostly clean.
"Everything's wrapped up in your reputation," said VanderPal, 34. "If you don't have that, you don't have much."
The reputation firms won't take on everyone. Fertik says ReputationDefender won't work with clients who want to suppress violent crimes, for example.
The clients the firms accept are varied: a real estate mogul wanting to move past a decade-old transgression, a prominent academic falsely accused of murder, a hedge fund manager who doesn't like seeing his old New York Times wedding announcement on Google years after he divorced and remarried, a college student who regretted once dressing up as a prostitute at a Halloween party.
Then there was the businessman who paid a Securities and Exchange Commission fine a few years ago.
"Does a person in this situation have a chance to start again?" Fertik asked. "Should this be the first or second thing that shows up on the Internet? Is it fair?"
ReputationDefender decided to work with him.
Staff researcher Bob Lyford contributed to this report.