Protect Your Online Reputation

Last Updated Mar 31, 2008 3:00 PM EDT

In the real world, managing your reputation should be paramount. Showing up on time, being helpful to colleagues, and taking the occasional shower increase the reputation points you can leverage in any number of ways, including career advancement. Many of us spend a lot of time, if not thought, on maintaining our good rep.

If you have a virtual presence, chances are you have an online reputation, too. It's probably codified in some form. On eBay, I have a 100 percent positive feedback from 46 dealmakers, and my reviews on several consumer sites are considered, in aggregate, "somewhat" useful.

Yet, I don't put nearly as much time grooming my online reputation as my offline one. Should I?

The answer is, yes I should. And so should you.

John Sviokla has me thinking a little harder about this topic with a new Harvard Online post, Managing Your Reputation in a World of Crowdsourcing. I actually disagree a bit with his premise that the burgeoning world of user generated content is a threat to businesses because it puts reputation at the mercy of the mob. He writes:

The problem with Wikipedia, and blogs, and user generated content is that many of them don't have a strong reputation management process. Put another way, any idiot can have an opinion.
I believe Wikipedia has quite a strong reputation management process based on peer review, and the overall quality of the content supports that claim. And bloggers gain importance and influence by the quality of their information and thinking -- an idiot blogger is likely to influence only other idiots.

Look Out For #1 Where I do agree with John is in his call that businesses, and I'll add individuals, must get serious about developing and protecting their online reputation.

Reputation is what's going to save you when a jilted paramour posts that you steal from the church, an angry customer criticizes your firm's selling practices, and a former employee e-mails around a phony arrest record with your name at the top. Sure, a good attorney can help but, as they say, no one reads the corrections page in the newspaper.

Online reputation also becomes increasingly important with the spread of Web 2.0 and its emphasis on social and business networking. In the real word, your word is your bond. Online, its your Five Star rating that wins you more deals, wider influence, and a bank account of goodwill when that idiot blogger does decides to take a shot.

In other words, investing in reputation maintenance pays off.

Do Unto Others So what can you do to boost your reputation? Use common sense more than anything.

  • Golden Rule. You don't determine your reputation -- it's determined by the people you interact with. So to others be fair, transparent, and honest. (And OK, it wouldn't hurt to encourage satisfied customers to post some love in your direction.)
  • Watch The Watchers. Monitor what others are saying about you and your company. There are lots of firms that will do this for you. Be ready to interact online with a critic when appropriate in an honest exchange. In today's business jargon, be "authentic".
  • Perry Mason On Line 1. Sometimes it turns ugly and ultimately defamatory. Know the law and use it if need be. But also understand it's better to win in the court of public opinion than in the courtroom.
Also, start thinking about how this concept of online identity is going to play out in the next three, five, or ten years. Harvard Business School marketing professor John Deighton believes online identity is something not only to be protected, but will be something you use to your advantage in online dealings. He envisions, for example, that consumers who are willing to share personal information will be more attractive to sellers and more sought-after than those who refuse to participate.

How do you build and protect your online rep? Is it important to you? How would you address a competitor casting a stain your character?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.