Your Business vs. Cyber Bullies  By DYAN MACHAN

In the old days, if you were mad at a merchant, you could muster an angry mob and have him tarred and feathered and run out of town. These days all you have to do is write a nasty report on a complaint message board. But it s worse: The digital angry mob will be back to chase the victim out of town every single day.

I first encountered the phenomenon a few years ago when I was looking to hire a landscape designer. A friend recommended a local gardener, but when I searched for that person s name online, the first result that came up was a Web site that lambasted his performance in boldface type, accusing him of overcharging and shoddy workmanship. When I asked the gardener about it, he said the site had been put up by a disgruntled customer he didn’t t know much more about it, he explained, because he doesn’t t own a computer. The gardener said he had asked his lawyer what he could do. His answer: nothing.

Fortunately for him and other entrepreneurs, that’s not exactly true. Over the past few years, a brand-new industry has sprung up to help businesses protect their online corporate images. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are among the top customers of the firms that offer these Internet Write-Out skills, which combine public relations finesse and search engine technique.

When a large company gets a tongue-lashing online, the complaints often get shoved to the backwaters of a search result, because there s such a sea of other information available. But there s typically less information online on a small fry, which means a customer s diatribe on a complaint board can be sticky and devastating. That s where businesses like Reputation Defender, specialists in online sanitation, come in and offer their services. Of course, you don t have to turn to a white knight to fight your battles for you but it takes a lot of elbow grease to wipe away a concerted online smear.

Where the attack originates has a big impact on your odds of making it go away. If inaccurate or libelous information is posted on a blog, you have a chance of getting the blogger to take it down just by asking. Many bloggers would prefer to avoid a defamation-of-character lawsuit or at the very least, a pissing match, notes Kevin Spleid, a New York based computer consultant. And in many cases, the law prohibits individuals from making false or defamatory statements online. But there s a colossal exemption built into the Communications Decency Act that protects Internet service providers and any review site that allows other people not its employees to post comments. Ripoff Report, one online gripe net, says it has successfully defended itself against 20 lawsuits and is adamant in its refusal to take down reviews even when an author asks to retract one.

While you can sue an individual for posting malicious or false information, winning a lawsuit doesn’t t mean the offending content will go away. Digital material that’s  archived or stored doesn’t t easily disappear. My gardener friend s problem was particularly tricky because it wasn t a matter of one bad review tucked inside some sprawling Web universe. In his case, the site that criticized him occupied its own, easily found Web planet.

Digital Reputation Management

To solve problems like this, the larger reputation management firms generally ask for a retainer that can run up to $1,000 a month to take care of cleanup and monitoring. For this cash, would your online-meanie problem go away? Sort of. According to the whitewashers, the best you can do is bury the offensive material under an avalanche of more positive fare. As students of how search engines favor certain types of information, these firms know how to create content that pushes the nasty stuff away from the top of a search-results page. Reputation Hawk, for example, has created business-related sites where it posts its customers positive reviews. If successful, the technique makes an impact, because 90 percent of people don’t  look past the first results page after an online search.

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