If you’re looking for reliable information about a product or service, you absolutely have to know about reputation management.

Think of reputation management, or “rep management,” as controlling what people read about your company online, and to a certain extent, offline. The goal is to either delete the negative information or push it to the bottom of search engine results on sites like Bing and Google.

The result? You’re far less likely find the bad reviews from disgruntled customers who would warn you about a company – and far more likely to see the glowing write-ups from adoring clients.

For example, here’s what one company, Defend Matrix, promises clients it will do:

• Identify positive web pages, blogs, forums, articles, or pages that it controls, that can be quickly elevated in the search engine rankings using optimization strategies. These pages blanket and replace negative listings.

• Post hundreds of positive articles, blog, journal and forum entries, news items, press releases and other pages on a steady, on-going basis. These postings offer positive reflections on your reputation — but more importantly, they replace negative postings by taking the top positions on the sites in which they appear.

• Create new, positive content on your site and on sites that Defend Matrix controls, then optimizing this content so that it rises quickly to the top search engine rankings. Defend Matrix owns hundreds of sites used for this purpose.

“The goal of reputation management tends to be one of two things,” says Babak Zafarnia, president of Praecere Public Relations. “Either a company wants consumers to know something good about its business, or wants consumers to know that the company actually cares about its perception.”

Businesses have plenty of reason to engage in this kind of activity, says Sharon Geltner, a reputation management expert with Froogle PR.

“These days of unscrupulous content mills, in which unpaid, or grossly underpaid writers hired from across the globe report on anything, pretty much according to whim, make reputation management important,” she says. “You do not want future clients, significant others, college admissions departments, HR types, employers and colleagues getting a bad impression of you — even if you did nothing wrong.”
If the idea of a company trying to manipulate Internet search engines to ensure you don’t see all the bad stuff about it is a little unsettling, don’t worry. There’s more.

If a company is engaged in reputation management – truly effective reputation management – you probably wouldn’t even know it.
Most rep management operations are secretive and can only be detected by an expert eye, according to people with knowledge of the industry.

“The only way would be to see how quickly they respond to a negative attack,” says Gary Bahadur, the chief executive of KRAA Security and the author of an upcoming book called “Securing Social Media.” “A good example of a managed reputation is Network Solutions. When they had a break-in, their team was out responding to blogs and putting out news stories the same day. All very positive responses.”
So what do you need to know about reputation management? Here are 5 facts that will help you become a more savvy consumer:

1. They can’t make anything disappear
Short of legal action, there is no way to completely remove negative content from the Internet, according to Ben Buzbee, who owns the reputation management company Affiliated Marketing Solutions. “There is no real guarantee that can be made in performing online reputation management,” he added. His company does use legal strategies to delete negative content, when necessary. Other times, he will try to boost positive content about a company online.

2. It’s not just about burying bad things
The goal of a good reputation management campaign, says Kimberly Ercius, president of the search-engine consulting firm Sercius, is an accurate image – not an overinflated one. Rep management initiatives focus on the first few search results because that’s where most users go. “If a business has a great product with a lot of fans, that should jump off the page at a glance,” she says. “Genuine reputation management doesn’t mean removing everything negative. If a company’s entire reputation management strategy is solely to remove all negative content, then the consumer is missing out on important information that would drive their purchasing decision.”

3. Besides, some bad things deserve to be buried
Jason Mudd, a principal with Axia Public Relations, insists some information should be pushed to the bottom of the search engine results. “Once you explore the situation by investigating the matter, in a very objective light, typically, one person in the situation – whether it’s a single employee or a single customer – is behind the entire thing,” he says. “Often, the employee messed up and the company took action by firing them. Sometimes, a customer failed to read the contract. Other times, the employee or customer were fired and now they are seeking revenge.” In other words, companies see reputation management as countering the negative publicity generated by a few disgruntled employees or customers, as opposed to controlling their image.

4. Successful reputation management fails (a little)
Because Internet users value authenticity, a rep management campaign that scrubs the web clean of any negative content is almost certain to backfire. Good reputation management doesn’t place a muzzle on customer opinions, says Shannon Wilkinson, who runs the Reputation Communications Corporation. For example, Wilkinson recently went shopping for a lamp at the Pottery Barn website. But a few reviewers panned the unit she liked. “I stayed on the site, purchased another lamp and have enjoyed it since,” she says. “Why? I trusted Pottery Barn because the company allowed those bad reviews to stay online. Many companies would remove them.”

5. Because information is manipulated, you need to do more research
“When researching a company, look beyond the first two pages of the search,” advises Richard Bialek, whose company, the BialekGroup, consults on reputation management issues. “Reputation management can reorder search results but it is difficult to totally remove all negative information,” he says. “Use caution and do your homework. Work with people you trust and as Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust, but verify’.”

“Remember,” adds Abraham Shafi, co-founder of Veechi Corp., a social media site. “Not everything written on the Internet is true.”
As consumer, it’s nice to know that a rep management company can be too successful at what it does – thus invalidating all of the information about a company.

And while the reputation management industry’s arguments for what it does may sound reasonable, the net effect for people like you and me is that we often have to work harder to find the information we need if we want to make an informed purchase.

“There will always be those who try to manipulate the system to their benefit,” says Doug Wolfgram, chief executive of IntelliProtect, an online privacy service. “But they will be weeded out when good, solid products and services have good, solid online reputations.”

Until then, read everything online with a critical eye.

(Photo: mc ri tz/Flickr Creative Commons)