Michael Fertik had to bite his tongue. A pioneer of online reputation management (known as ORM), Fertik founded one of the first firms to specialize in the field more than 15 years ago. On this day, he was sitting, teeth grinding as he was mired in a debate with what a man he calls “a sniveling, well-known legal thinker, a very high-profile guy.” Both were on a conference panel, in front of a packed auditorium, and that frothy mouthed talking head was decrying Fertik’s business loudly. Google’s all-seeing algorithm should take primacy, he thundered, and massaging its findings in any way—the premise for Fertik’s nascent business—was akin to meddling with the truth. Except there was one notable hitch.
“All the time, I knew he was my customer,” Fertik grumbles, “I was looking at his customer receipts on my phone while debating him, but I had to hold my tongue.” He pauses. “Later, when we spoke, he did the most marvelous triple reverse somersault backflip: he, and only he, deserved to have someone protecting his digital back.” But the hypocritical media-hungry legal eagle wasn’t alone, Fertik continues, laughing. “The smart élites who claimed to be aghast about what we were doing? They’re the self-same ones who became our customers over time.”
More from Robb Report
Fertik was an early mover in the once-niche Internet industry of ORM. These days, that legal eagle would likely tout the suite of services he’s contracted to keep his digital footprint scandal-free. Just like a Hollywood publicist might once have acted as a clean-up guy or gal for a wayward star—think the 1990s powerhouse Pat Kingsley, who deployed her then-A-list roster (Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster, Richard Gere) more like a shield for each other—so experts in this field guard clients online. Those companies are hired to proactively shape, purge or monitor whatever the internet thinks or says about anyone they represent—an ORM manager, much like bodyguard or housekeeper, is now a staple on wealthy families’ payrolls.
Carlos Iniguez from BrandYourself says his firm is in the business of managing “digital real estate.” “Clients might have had someone purchase a website in their name and then put something bad on it,” he says, “We help them claim social media handles even if they aren’t planning to use them.” Of course, sometimes the reasons for reputation-laundering could be a little more subjective. “Maybe a Google search makes it look like a guy is still married to the old wife, and his new spouse wants the search to reflect that he’s remarried, so you need to make the current events look more prominent,” Fertik confides. “You can call it fragility of ego.”
If anyone is the Steve Jobs of online image maintenance, it’s Michael Fertik. The 43-year-old is the author of The Reputation Economy and now runs VC firm Heroic Ventures. When he waded into this space 16 years ago, though, it was far from obvious that online image-buffing had as widespread an application—and potential client base—as it does today.
Back in 2006—what Fertik calls “the Jurassic Age of the Internet, when MySpace was bigger than Facebook”—he spotted a small, but nagging, problem. Disgruntled customers or ex-lovers were increasingly posting smears, whether on restaurants or Romeos, on feedback sites. These were often set up in good faith but allowed to lapse into mudslinging, thanks to lax moderation—think TripAdvisor, but for Tinder, mashed up with Twitter-level rage. Anyone sullied by such accusations had surprisingly little recourse, thanks to two key pieces of legislation which helped shape our online rights when they first emerged: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, and 1996’s Communications Decency Act.
Put simply, these laws indemnified websites from libelous postings made by users, even if that person remained anonymous and impossible to find—a lesser problem in the AOL-dominated era than now, of course. The legislation also emphasized copyright over privacy. “It was one of the really sinful things of the early Internet intelligentsia: They were against the proposition that you should have privacy, because information wants to be free,” Fertik says. “So with one letter, Disney can force YouTube to remove 50,000 videos, but if your kid sister is photographed in a compromising position at a party, the only person who can request de-publication of the photo is the person who took it, which is weird. It also made it much more like a free-for-all race to the cesspool bottom.” And, of course, offered an opening for someone savvy enough to spot that helping folks trapped in such situations could be a viable business. Enter Fertik.
Soon, he was deluged with clients seeking an early form of ORM. Briefs usually fell into one of two camps. “Someone’s kid had really screwed up the family reputation, and we helped that person move on from the embarrassment, or a deal that had fallen through and left egg on the face of a private equity type.” Think, too, of the businessman whose contentious divorce elbowed aside his impressive achievements in finance from search engines’ page 1. “The majority of people didn’t want a lawsuit to be the only thing you knew about them.”
One percenters, per Fertik, rarely perceive a distinction between themselves and the Fortune 500 companies they might have built from scratch—and which often bear their name. Should one’s reputation be impugned, they consider the other automatically implicated. Take the high-profile, wealthy European woman who was close to death and was keen to safeguard her family’s business after she died. “She made some, let’s say, colorful remarks that were quoted in the press, and didn’t want that to be the only thing people saw when they looked up her son. She was untouchable, she was so well-known, but didn’t want those remarks to be the only thing people remembered about her when considering working with her kid.”
From the outset, Fertik and his team set boundaries as to what they would or would not help digitally diminish—no sex or violent crimes, for example. “A guy signed up really early on, who was an unrepentant Nazi, but didn’t want anyone to know. We refunded him, and he sent a very polite email thanking us for being so honorable. I didn’t tell him I’m Jewish.” The firm declined to work with one notorious Hollywood figure keen to launder a decades-long disgrace. “I had the head of a very famous agency yelling at me, saying ‘Do you have some secret codicil that says you can’t serve people this?’”
Bolstering the right messages around a client’s name was reasonably straightforward in the MySpace era, of course, when user-generated social media commentary was minimal—most Google-championed results were funneled through legacy outlets, and so both easier to offset and less numerous. That’s all changed in the last 15 years, according to Rich Matta, the current head of the firm Fertik founded, now known as Reputation Defender. Matta describes the firm’s approach to ORM as “SEO inverted.” SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, a now-common digital practice that helps elevate a story in Google’s search rankings.
“In SEO, many search terms are leading to one company website online, but reputation management involves one search term leading to many websites, where we’re hoping to crowd out unwanted materials,” he tells Robb Report. Much of his work, then, centers on counterbalancing that deluge of dreck via boosterish content generation, whether blog posts on personal websites or sites like Medium. “We’re hoping to create a network of positive, truthful, objective websites.”
The goal, per Matta, is to drive any unwanted news off page 1 of Google search results—90 percent of users don’t click further, he promises, and 99 percent won’t wander past page 2. When Reputation Defender works with a high-net-worth individual, or their family office, fees range from $20,000 to low six-figures for a year’s engagement. “We can’t flip a light switch and fix search results overnight—typically, we engage for a year,” he explains. Most clients will come complaining about five to seven negative search results on Google’s first page and it will take around six months to start seeing them drop from sight. Eight months after first engagement, they should be relegated completely. For the rest of that contract, Matta’s firm focuses on shoring up positive placements.
He sketches out one scenario to illustrate: a CEO whose management style isn’t appreciated by all of her employees. She might be about to enter a new funding round, and stumble on carping from a small clique of staff. “It hurts the whole company, and a lot of times it is one-sided—the CEO almost invariably feels it’s completely unfair, and for a woman, it’s ‘They wouldn’t be saying that about me if I were a man’.”
This work, which spans the globe, must also think locally—note Europe’s GDPR rules, which came into force in 2018. The EU rules effectively enshrine a right to be forgotten in law: Requesting removal from Google (though not the Internet entirely) is as simple as submitting a form, a welcome shortcut for his teams. It’s not a cure-all, though. “The more public you are, the more the public has a right to know, even under GDPR and the right to be forgotten.”
Scrubbing, rather than sprucing up, someone’s online footprint is a huge growth area for the firm, which now offers what it calls “executive privacy.” The service scans more than 100 data brokering sites for key elements of personal information that could be deployed against a well-known figure—finding the answer to a password reset question, like a mother’s maiden name, is no longer as hard as it was even 20 years ago. It’s intended to protect against so-called spear-phishing attacks, which target individuals and aims to commandeer accounts, whether bank or email. Real estate photographs, showcasing splashy mansions that could offer intel to ill-willed readers, are another sweet spot. There’s a process to request their removal from Zillow.com, which his firm often undertakes.
Rather than massaging others’ articles and postings about a one percenter, though, why not try to crowd them out another way—by creating a Raya-meets-LinkedIn profile on a site like The Marque? Chris Baratta, a former university literature professor, is now an executive at the firm. The premise of this operation is simple, but different from Reputation Defender: Hire us to create a gleaming profile on our own SEO-optimized site, which we’ll then guarantee will land as high as possible on any Google searches. “We get grouped in with reputation management companies, but we’re not that,” Barratt claims. “We focus on social polishing, which is helping our clients build or improve their digital presence.”
The seven-year-old, 21-person firm has offices in London, New York and Cape Town. Clients range from the likes of Aman owner Vladislav Doronin to tennis pro Sloane Stephens and financier Tim Levy. They pay at least $4,100 for the first year, and $2,700 for each subsequent 12-month period, to be part of this program. That buys you a headshot and detailed bio hosted on The Marque’s own site, as well as its efforts to push that page as far up Google’s rankings as possible. For $17,000 more per year, they can hire The Marque’s “digital briefcase” service, which monitors and audits member’s name for real-time impugning (think a critical tweet from a company staffer).
“We urge that our clients own the prime real estate of Google page 1,” Baratta explains. “We aim to have a client’s company as the first result, and their Marque profile as the second, and the following results should be digital assets they own, like Twitter or LinkedIn accounts.” Like anyone who signs up for their services, Doronin, Stephens and company have a dedicated profile manager, who ensures information is constantly up to date, though they’re encouraged to pitch in, too. Add a link to your page on The Marque to the end of every email, the firm advises, to increase clicks.
One client came to the firm after losing out on a $100 million investment as a result of their wider family’s social media activity, while another was shamed into stepping down from four boards because of their partner’s hateful tweets. Baratta cites a third who hired the company to help create distance from an associate whose political campaign had become mired in controversy. “Now, when you search for that individual, the two articles linking them are no longer on Google’s page 1,” Baratta says proudly, “When you’re working with a company like ours, it’s to make sure you’re presented online as you hope to be.”
That’s the specialty of London-based élite ORM outfit Digitalis, too. Its CEO Dave King tells Robb Report about a recent client: a prominent, wealthy individual from overseas who happened to marry an English-language celebrity. After their wedding, the client’s online footprint was upended, transforming from sober write-ups of business deals to tabloidy snaps of dinner à deux with their spouse at well-known restaurants. The latter, such catnip for Google’s algorithm, crowded out their more straight-laced content. The client told King that the coverage of dinner wasn’t in and of itself a problem; rather, the fact that their own achievements were sidelined by it was more impactful. “People look at me like I’m a socialite when I come to the US or UK and try to do deals, when in fact I’m a serious businessperson,” they said. So the businessperson asked Digitalis to step in, helping to amplify existing, business-focused coverage. “We managed to drown all that out, that marrying a celebrity,” King says.
The key to Digitalis’s approach, King points out, is a proprietary system that its team created in 2009: a tech platform that acts as a real-time internet monitoring tool and flags any worrisome activity klaxon-style. It’s search engine agnostic, so it goes beyond Google and company to Russia’s Yandex, China’s Baidu and Naver in South Korea, three of the largest overseas alternatives. That helps clients who are often specific—and regional—in their concerns. “We might have a client from an African country, who’s trying to create a life for themselves in France who says, ‘I don’t care about the gossipy content about me at home, that’s par for the course, but I’m trying to build a new home’—so they care about results on Google.fr even though they could be from Nigeria.”
Sometimes, Digitalis deploys its system on behalf of governments, often focusing on online extremism, but the firm is also hired by individuals like that celebrity’s spouse; most individual clients pay Digitalis retainers of five figures per month. That money pays for a responsive program. When its platform sounds an alarm, the team swings into action promoting what he calls “contemporaneous, accurate content with a view to securing search engine listings”. What it recommends against, though, is trying to scrub all evidence of your existence from the Internet, especially for the ultra-wealthy.
“Ten years ago, I’d have supported that contention absolutely—why would you want any data out there to cause you harm?” King tells Robb Report. That’s not the case today. KYC or Know Your Client companies will flag those with too little online presence as questionable when they investigate anyone looking to create a new banking relationship, as part of money laundering compliance. “And absence of content creates another risk. If you Google your name and nothing comes up about you whatsoever, someone can easily hurt you by creating nasty content,” he cautions.
Dave King says Digitalis also offers a service that investigates anonymous personal attacks to try to determine the author—and so curtail such critiques. The company is primed to launch a new subscription version of its AI-powered scanner that would act as much like a security service as a reputation manager. Say a client is living in a territory where kidnap and ransom for profit is a day-to-day threat. Digitalis’s online monitoring could scrape family members’ and associates’ activity to look for warning signs. “The challenge with these things is isolating false negatives—unlike many monitoring services designed to produce masses of results, we aspire to a monitoring service that produces zero, until the day you have a real problem.”
It’s a clever extension of the business, and one with clear value. There are countless other upstart entrants, though, who are much less welcome. Michael Fertik warns that the largely unregulated industry is primed for abuse around preventing abuse. “Anyone can call themselves a reputation manager, and some really nasty characters have entered the field,” he says. Take the unscrupulous entrepreneur who secured funding for a Reputation.com-style ORM site. Fertik and his team were curious about the man, who had criminal convictions and a lengthy career in selling supplements. “We uncovered that he was also operating websites where you could go and slight someone—the very postings he was offering to get taken down. He was feeding his own beast.”