The trend has made managing a company's reputation online one of the major challenges that businesses face these days, aside from the economy, according to lawyers at SMX West last week in Santa Clara, Calif.
"My phone rings about reputation management more than anything else these days," said Clark Walton, attorney at law, Walton Law Firm, Las Vegas. "It's all about defamatory and negative comments. I get doctors, dentists and lawyers calling all the time."
The question Sarah Bird, J.D., and COO at SEOmoz.org, hears most often is "someone posted something about me online and I want to know how to get it down."
The posts began with derogatory statements on RateMDs.com, RottenNeighbor.com and RateMyProfessors.com, but Bird has begun to hear "someone said something about me online and I want to know how to get it down" related to other sites, too.
Search engine optimization experts such as Internet marketing and SEO consultant Rae Hoffman are concerned that sites such as Google's SearchWiki, which let people leave business-related comments attached to search queries, have begun to fuel the fire.
Google added the ability to comment on companies and terms in personalized search queries within SearchWiki. During a panel discussion at SMX West, Hoffman asked SearchWiki Manager Corey Anderson and Software Engineer Bryan Horling how Google plans to manage comments across millions of search terms.
"How do you make sure the same person isn't leaving 50 comments?" Hoffman asked. "Do you have some way for people to file a grievance on a former employee that got laid off and left 42 comments on how much my company sucks?"
While SearchWiki provides personalized search results to one specific person, all comments made on the search term becomes available from a link found at the bottom of the results page, Anderson told Online Media Daily.
Comments left on search queries are associated with the Google account, nickname and Internet protocol (IP) address of the computer, which provides information on the person. While that covers about 95% of Internet users, Hoffman wanted to know about the tech-savvy guy who's smart enough to get 35 IP addresses, email accounts and make 35 comments because he was underpaid for a job.
"That's an interesting issue," Anderson said. "If you are unhappy with the comments, you can give it the old thumbs down and report it as inappropriate, and we are handling those reports right now."
Google does not consider the issue as "big," but if the comments tools is abused the company does have plans to "address the issue." Anderson said Google has a list of "worst case scenarios that we're somewhat worried about" and the issue Hoffman describes has crossed the minds of SearchWiki developers.
It puts Google in the terrible position of having to evaluate the merits of every complaint, Bird said, adding that if users write defamatory comments about a company on SearchWiki, Google isn't held responsible. The Communications Decency Act Section 320 gives businesses immunity for content on their site that they did not create. It allows Web 2.0 to work.
"Google could have a policy to take it down, but sometimes that would decrease the value of having comments," Bird said. "Sometimes companies do bad things and people have legitimate complaints. It's a great way to get that information out there."
If the comment is defamatory lawyers can help, but if it's not Walton sends the company executive to a search engine optimization expert.
Rand Fishkin, CEO of Seattle-based search consultancy SEOmoz, said there are a few things that SEO experts can do to help. For starters, they can bury the comments deep in the keyword query results, so they don't return in the top of the first page.