Klout scores get clouted, and maybe consumers [update]

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY If you have an account on Klout, the website that ranks social media users according to their perceived influence, you might have noticed a big drop in your score during May. If so, it may have been due to a bug that the company says affected less than 1 percent of users. But in that time, you might have been judged and even potentially lost out on a job opportunity because your score was too low.

That raises the question of whether businesses are paying too much attention to a measure of influence that is opaque, unchallengeable, and potentially flawed at any given time.

The bug had literally gone unseen by the media, but in one of my infrequent checks of the site, I noticed that early in May my own score had gone from 50 to 18 overnight without explanation. The dashboard showed that on Twitter I had no retweets, no mentions, no followers, and no one I was following -- all of which was incorrect. All that it showed were dashes.

I ignored the problem for weeks because, frankly, I don't pay that much attention to Klout. However, I eventually was puzzled and emailed the company's customer support on May 23. I got a reply on May 29:

I'm sorry for the inconvenience. I'm passing this information to the development team so that they can take a look at your case. I will notify you as soon as I have an update or there's a resolution. Please let me know if anything changes.

I never heard back, but the next day my score was suddenly up to 49.

The entire situation seemed odd, so I then emailed the company's PR department, which promptly responded (kudos there, as many Internet-based businesses seem to ignore press queries). After some back and forth, I had the following explanation:

You were one of a very small number of users (less than one percent of registered users) whose account was inadvertently opted out due to a bug. When you reported the issue to our support team we fixed it immediately. This was not a system-wide bug or score outage. We were able to proactively fix some users' accounts, but in your case we responded as soon as we received your inquiry. Our customer support and tech teams are very diligent and responsive to customers who report account issues (as with your case).

Given that it took six days to hear that customer support was even passing the issue along, it's unclear how responsive the company is when push comes to shove.

Again, I don't typically pay much attention to Klout. But as the company acknowledges, there were others who were affected for an extended period. Under 1 percent? Perhaps, but remember that in September 2011 Klout claimed to have scores for 100 million people. So the outage could have affected nearly 1 million people.

[UPDATE: Klout contacted me to say that only registered users who had specifically set up accounts were affected and not people for whom the company had created a score but who never registered as a user. I asked how many registered users there were, but the representative said that Klout does not disclose that number. I then asked how the company could know that only registered users were affected as it obviously did not know until I contacted the customer service department (and people who weren't registered users would likely never know). The response was, "No un-registered users were affected at all by this bug," which effectively ignored the question. And that question remains. How can someone be sure that a score - that might affect them in various ways - was accurately calculated and that they weren't being penalized by a computer error?]

Maybe none of them took it seriously, but as Wired pointed out in April, some people lose out on jobs over a poor Klout score:

The interviewer pulled up the web page for Klout.com -- a service that purports to measure users' online influence on a scale from 1 to 100--and angled the monitor so that Fiorella could see the humbling result for himself: His score was 34. "He cut the interview short pretty soon after that," Fiorella says. Later he learned that he'd been eliminated as a candidate specifically because his Klout score was too low. "They hired a guy whose score was 67."

According to the story, Klout scores have begun to influence a lot of businesses. Hotels might check scores for guests to see if any should rate upgrades or perks. Cathay Pacific Airways has opened its San Francisco airport lounge to people with a Klout score of 40 or more. Salesforce.com (CRM) has a function that lets companies monitor customer Klout scores with an eye to which ones can make them look good or bad in public.

There has long been criticism over the proprietary nature of the company's algorithms, and the harshness only increases when you factor in the potential impact a Klout score can have on someone's life and business. Now you can add to these concerns the chance that your Klout score could be decimated accidentally at exactly the wrong time.

Image: morgueFile user ppdigital, photo editing by Erik Sherman

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.