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Protecting your reputation — and your business model

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I went on AirTalk today with guest host David Lazarus to discuss how people can do personal, micro-crisis PR, fixing their online reputations.

I'd already written about the "crisis" in crisis PR, as well as how Toyota was laid low, during its Great Recall, by Twitter. So the topic was in my wheelhouse.

Online reputation management has become a serious business. We were joined by Michael Fertik, the CEO of Reputation.com, a startup that has defined itself as a leader in the space. So much so that when Fertik informed us that the company had attracted $67 million to date, through four rounds of venture funding, I was taken aback. I thought the company had raised more!

We covered the various ways in which a person might deal with negative information about themselves online. A caller issued perhaps the ultimate challenge when she revealed that her ex-husband has posted a sex-tape from happier times (Fertik said it would take a few thousand to deal with that). Reputation.com has a fairly broad scale of fees, ranging from a basic $100/year plan right on up to ReputationDefender15000, which runs...$15,000 a year!

The question is, Is it worth it? Reputation.com and other online reputation management firms offer what amounts to a suite of services, all of which can be deployed to improve an online identity or push compromising information farther down on search results. The company is selling expertise — a presumably deep understanding of Google and the evolving social-media metabolism, as well as legal knowledge of how to get defaming data removed from offending websites.

Fertik — a graduate of both Harvard and Harvard Law School who started his company in 2006 and is involved with the World Economic Forum's online privacy efforts (yes, he's a Davos Man) — said that Reputation is a technology company, but that's not necessarily the case. Their products may entail an understanding of technology, along the lines of what professionals who can optimize websites to rank high in Google searches offer. But they aren't creating a technological differentiator of some sort that customers can buy to scrub their online identities.

What you have there is the limit of Reputation's business model, and maybe an explanation for why, five years after its founding, it's still doing venture rounds. One might have expected an exit or an acquisition by now, the typical means by which venture investors make their money. I suspect Fertik is aware of this and is moving into another line of business: enabling consumers to monetize their personal data.

He's gone so far as to liken personal data to a new form of "oil." Online black gold!

Fertik often points out that the first trillion made on the Internet was 90 percent advertising. He thinks the next trillion will be split between advertisers and regular people, who will consolidate their personal data and sell it to interested parties. Reputation.com, presumably, will be there to move this process along — and take its cut of the trillion.

Fertik has his critics. A law professor has argued Reputation.com and the reputation management business are capitalizing on Internet defamation as a profit driver, particularly as it relates to women. But he's on to something when it comes to turning personal data, which people are now freely donating to the Internet, into an asset of sorts.

I wouldn't pay to have my reputation "fixed" by Reputation.com — I decided long ago to live a public life and to live it in many respects on the Internet. I've been called terrible, terrible things online. But if anything, I wish more of what I've said and written was available. In my career, I've seen many thousands of words written for the Web go bye-bye when the sites that hosted them shut down.

However, I might be interesting in paying somebody a fee to broker my private data to companies that want to pay for it. Because if there is another trillion to be made online, even people with online reputations as bad as mine should benefit!

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