May 24, 2007
Sue Scheff's business, Parents Universal Resource Experts, places troubled teens in reform schools--and generates a lot of controversy. Disgruntled clients have accused Scheff's company of sending kids to abusive programs, and the Web is full of complaints: A quick Google search used to reveal sites describing her as a "fraud," a "con artist" and a "crook."
Google Scheff's name now, however, and the first few pages of results are far less controversial: They include Scheff's own sites about teen pregnancy [ http://www.sue-scheff.org/ ], her upcoming book, and, until recently, recipes for broccoli casserole and pork chops [ http://www.sue-scheff.net/ ].
That last one might seem strange to Scheff's friends, who know she doesn't cook. "The truth is, if it doesn't go in the microwave, I don't make it," she admits
So who wrote the cooking advice at sue-scheff.net? Not Sue Scheff. That site, and many of the others in the first several pages of Sue Scheff's Google results, were designed by a company called Reputation Defender, which sells what its founder, Michael Fertik, calls "Google insulation." For a fee, Reputation Defender pads the Web with friendly-sounding content like flattering blog entries, personal sites and other positive pages, and then pushes those sites to the top of the Google results for clients like Scheff, thereby hiding the online insults of her enemies.
And there's plenty of vitriol to hide. In 2004, she filed a defamation lawsuit against one of her critics, Carey Bock, in a Florida state court. Scheff won an $11.3 million verdict last year, but some negative commentary remained on the Web. Scheff says those comments were ruining her business, driving away more than half of her customers. "She had just slandered me up one side and down the other side of the Internet," Scheff says.
So Scheff turned to Reputation Defender. Founded last October, the company says it monitors what's written about clients online for a monthly $10 fee and will have specific content "destroyed" for an extra $30. The removal of content usually involves polite take-down requests that occasionally escalate into cease-and-desist letters and legal threats when necessary, says the company's chief executive, Michael Fertik.
But Reputation Defender recently began offering users a subtler approach: hiding unwanted Web comments with a barrage of positive, Google-friendly content, either created by the company or dredged up from elsewhere on the Web and optimized to appear at the top of search-engine results.
"Say you have 20,000 delighted clients and five clients that hate you," says Fertik. "We'll tell your story on the Internet and find press about you and start promoting that to the top of the Google chain. It's very Internet-specific PR, a very different game." For that labor-intensive service, officially called MyEdge, the company charges a hefty price: Fees start at around $10,000. Fertik says he has more than 25 clients for the service.
MyEdge's success is based not only in creating reputation-boosting pages but also in convincing Google to float those sites to the first few pages of results, the only results that most Web users ever see. But gaming Google can be tricky. The search giant, which declined to comment on Reputation Defender's service, spends significant resources trying to prevent Web site owners from pushing up their ranking artificially. And it will punish sites it thinks are cheating by pushing them into the back pages of search results. (see "Condemned To Google Hell" [ http://www.forbes.com/home/technology/2007/04/29/sanar-google-skyfacet-tech-cx_ag_0430googhell.html ]).
Fertik won't reveal the details of MyEdge's tactics, but he says he's confident they don't break Google's rules or those of any other search engine. He also says his company draws the line at publishing lies about individuals or businesses--the cooking site created for Sue Scheff, he says, was an unfortunate exception, one that he removed after talking to this reporter. But Fertik sees nothing wrong with manipulating Google to focus on the positive aspects of someone's persona.
"Google is not God," he says. "It's a machine, a superb machine that benefits millions, but it's still just a machine. And what it turns up can have remarkably deleterious impact on hardworking people and businesses."
Some might still argue that MyEdge misleads Web users or that it muzzles them by hiding negative opinions. But Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the Internet free-speech advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sees MyEdge as a healthy alternative to the usual angry-lawyer school of reputation management.
"As long as they're not committing some kind of fraud, I think this is the way to deal with bad speech," says Bankston. "This shows that you don't need to counter speech by attempting to censor it, but rather with better and more accurate information. As the truism goes, the best answer to bad speech is always more speech."