Take Steps to Protect Your Online Reputation


Expert Opinion from the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Mohs Surgery

MONTEREY, CALIF. — Have you searched for your name on the Internet? Your patients have.

“Your patients are Googling you,” and some of them probably are rating your performance as a doctor on one of the many physician-rating sites or generic rating sites, Dr. Clifford Warren Lober said.

Here's the problem: The patients most likely to rate you are those who are livid at you, or those who think you walk on water.

And it's not just patients who are posting comments about you, but previous patients, ex-employees, former spouses, or anyone else who knows you, said Dr. Lober, a dermatologist and attorney in Kissimmee, Fla.

Online comments may be made anonymously, persist for years on the Internet, be accessed by anyone with a computer, and be replicated on other Web sites beyond the original.

If you discover comments about you that you think are harmful to your reputation, your attempts to remedy the situation may backfire and instead “optimize” the content by bringing more attention to the posted statement, amplifying its negativity, the physician said.

Legal remedies are few and complicated. “There is a morass of legal defenses and privileges that protect the offending person,” Dr. Lober said.

So how best to manage your online reputation?

One strategy is to minimize the impact of negative online information through search-engine optimization, he suggested.

In practice, this means blitzing the Web with your own content to crowd out comments by others. “You want to occupy the first three pages of the rating sites” and the search-engine results pages if possible, Dr. Lober said, adding that most people don't look beyond the first three pages of results.

This can be done by establishing multiple Web sites, each with numerous internal page links, external high-traffic links, significant content on each of your home pages, and other features that make these the sites that show up when someone searches your name.

Establishing a deep social network presence helps, too. Create accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, Connectbeam, Yahoo Profile, Google Profile, MSN Profile, Wetpaint, Naymz, Jigsaw, Ning, and others, he suggested. Ideally, get on sites that feature RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds so that information posted on one site transfers to others.

Other prongs in this strategy include issuing press releases by using Internet publication sites, establishing one or more blogs in your name, and using pay-per-click advertising.

Sound overwhelming? Innovative entrepreneurs thought that it might, so a number of Internet reputation-management companies have formed to do some of this work for you—for a fee, of course. These include companies like Reputation Repair & Management, Internet Reputation Management, and ReputationDefender, Dr. Lober said.

If, instead, you want to try to get a specific offensive statement removed from the Web, seek legal counsel to guide you, he advised.

First, the statement must be determined to meet the legal definition of defamation. If it does, the next step is to determine if the person who wrote it is covered by any one of several standard legal defenses.

If that's not an issue, check the terms and conditions listed by the Internet service provider (ISP) of the site where the comment appeared, to see if the ISP made any promises or assurances about the content on the site. If you contact the ISP, it may take the comment down.

Normally, ISPs are immune from lawsuits over statements made by others on its service; they resemble telephone companies more than newspapers in that respect, he said.

You or your lawyer can request that the courts issue a subpoena to try to compel the person who made the statement (even an anonymous poster) to remedy the situation, but this process is time consuming and expensive, and the person who posted the comment may be difficult to locate, Dr. Lober cautioned.

And if you sue, the defendant may try to frame your action as a SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) suit intended to muzzle critics and restrict freedom of speech.

Some states have anti-SLAPP laws that could leave you paying the defendant's attorney fees and costs, and make you vulnerable to a countersuit by the defendant.

Better to try to “manage” your online reputation than to try to legally defend it, he suggested.

Dr. Lober reported having no pertinent conflicts of interest.

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