Friday, May 25, 2007

Sue Scheff - Interviewed by Forbes.com

InternetGoogle-Proof PR?
Andy Greenberg, 05.25.07, 6:00 AM ET

Sue Scheff's business, Parents Universal Resource Experts, places troubled teens in reform schools--and generates a lot of controversy. Disgruntled clients have accused Scheff's company of sending kids to abusive programs, and the Web is full of complaints: A quick Google search used to reveal sites describing her as a "fraud," a "con artist" and a "crook."

Google Scheff's name now, however, and the first few pages of results are far less controversial: They include Scheff's own sites about teen pregnancy, her upcoming book, and, until recently, recipes for broccoli casserole and pork chops.

That last one might seem strange to Scheff's friends, who know she doesn't cook. "The truth is, if it doesn't go in the microwave, I don't make it," she admits.
Related Stories:Grading Google

So who wrote the cooking advice at sue-scheff.net? Not Sue Scheff. That site, and many of the others in the first several pages of Sue Scheff's Google results, were designed by a company called Reputation Defender, which sells what its founder, Michael Fertik, calls "Google insulation." For a fee, Reputation Defender pads the Web with friendly-sounding content like flattering blog entries, personal sites and other positive pages, and then pushes those sites to the top of the Google results for clients like Scheff, thereby hiding the online insults of her enemies.

And there's plenty of vitriol to hide. In 2004, she filed a defamation lawsuit against one of her critics, Carey Bock, in a Florida state court. Scheff won an $11.3 million verdict last year, but some negative commentary remained on the Web. Scheff says those comments were ruining her business, driving away more than half of her customers. "She had just slandered me up one side and down the other side of the Internet," Scheff says.

So Scheff turned to Reputation Defender. Founded last October, the company says it monitors what's written about clients online for a monthly $10 fee and will have specific content "destroyed" for an extra $30. The removal of content usually involves polite take-down requests that occasionally escalate into cease-and-desist letters and legal threats when necessary, says the company's chief executive, Michael Fertik.

But Reputation Defender recently began offering users a subtler approach: hiding unwanted Web comments with a barrage of positive, Google-friendly content, either created by the company or dredged up from elsewhere on the Web and optimized to appear at the top of search-engine results.

"Say you have 20,000 delighted clients and five clients that hate you," says Fertik. "We'll tell your story on the Internet and find press about you and start promoting that to the top of the Google chain. It's very Internet-specific PR, a very different game." For that labor-intensive service, officially called MyEdge, the company charges a hefty price: Fees start at around $10,000. Fertik says he has more than 25 clients for the service.

MyEdge's success is based not only in creating reputation-boosting pages but also in convincing Google to float those sites to the first few pages of results, the only results that most Web users ever see. But gaming Google can be tricky. The search giant, which declined to comment on Reputation Defender's service, spends significant resources trying to prevent Web site owners from pushing up their ranking artificially. And it will punish sites it thinks are cheating by pushing them into the back pages of search results. (see "Condemned To Google Hell").

Fertik won't reveal the details of MyEdge's tactics, but he says he's confident they don't break Google's rules or those of any other search engine. He also says his company draws the line at publishing lies about individuals or businesses--the cooking site created for Sue Scheff, he says, was an unfortunate exception, one that he removed after talking to this reporter. But Fertik sees nothing wrong with manipulating Google to focus on the positive aspects of someone's persona.

"Google is not God," he says. "It's a machine, a superb machine that benefits millions, but it's still just a machine. And what it turns up can have remarkably deleterious impact on hardworking people and businesses."

Some might still argue that MyEdge misleads Web users or that it muzzles them by hiding negative opinions. But Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the Internet free-speech advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sees MyEdge as a healthy alternative to the usual angry-lawyer school of reputation management.

"As long as they're not committing some kind of fraud, I think this is the way to deal with bad speech," says Bankston. "This shows that you don't need to counter speech by attempting to censor it, but rather with better and more accurate information. As the truism goes, the best answer to bad speech is always more speech."

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My comments: Andy Greenberg did a wonderful article! The cooking website that Reputation Defender created for me was my fault for not letting them know I was not a kitchen person. When I saw the site I thought it was cute and harmless - and I apologize if Reputation Defender is taking flack for my mistake in not telling them sooner.

Reputation Defender and MyEdge are priceless! If you are being slandered or ruined online - I highly recommend them. I am someone that fought legally and won $11.3 M - but with that hefty jury verdict - the ugliness of the web still remained. Well - until I retained Reputation Defender and MyEdge!

For over 7 years I have run a very successful organization in helping parents - like with all businesses, you can't please everyone - but it doesn't give people a right to ruin you and your years of hard work. Parent's Universal Resource Experts (PURE) has literally helped thousands of families and is proudly a member of the Better Business Bureau for several years.

My book will be released in 2008 - http://www.suescheff.net/ - Website Design Courtesy of MyEdge.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle - Web Can Ruin Reputation with a stroke of a key

Web can ruin reputation with stroke of a key

Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

The first postings appeared soon after Sue Scheff, who runs a Web-based referral service for parents with troubled teenagers, advised a woman from Louisiana to withdraw her twin sons from a boarding school in 2002.

Scheff is "a con artist," "a crook" and "a fraud," according to the messages, which peppered blogs and Internet forums for parents of troubled teens.

Soon, calls to Scheff's Parents Universal Resource Experts dropped by half, said Scheff, 45, who lives in Weston, Fla. "People would say: 'You know, I just read this about you online. How do I know I can trust you?' "

Scheff, whose 6-year-old service usually draws a lot of traffic, is a victim of an emerging phenomenon: online smear campaigns, which can wreak havoc in the victims' professional and business lives at the touch of a few keystrokes.

"It is happening ... on more or less every Web site where people can create content," said Michael Fertik, a co-founder of ReputationDefender, a Palo Alto-based group that helps clients remove damaging content from the Internet. "From underage people, to university people, to graduate school people, to older people, to people who are being targeted by exes, to people who are being targeted by ex-business partners, colleagues at work."

Millions of Americans use Internet search engines and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to learn more about prospective dates, neighbors and colleagues. One in 4 hiring managers use online search engines like Google to screen job candidates, a survey by the CareerBuilder job search engine showed last fall. The Internet has become a 21st century credit report service.

The catch: Anyone can post any information about anyone, however false, on any one of the thousands of Internet sites with modifiable content. Once posted, defamatory information can be stored on the Web forever, accessible to anyone via a simple search.

"You would Google my name, and what would come up was 'beware of Sue Scheff,' " said Scheff, 45, who eventually won an $11.3 million defamation lawsuit last fall against the mother from Louisiana, Carey Bock, the author of most of the original postings accusing Scheff of fraud that started appearing in 2003. "It was ugly. It was horrible."

Bock, 49, told The Chronicle last week that she will appeal the decision, handed down by a jury in Florida's Broward County Circuit Court. "I don't think I've done anything wrong," she said. [As a footnote - the judgment is certified - there are no grounds for appeal.]

"There have always been cases of people speaking their minds without thinking of ramifications," and defamatory postings are "simply a new expression of that," said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit legal organization that advocates digital rights and free speech.

In contrast to ReputationDefender, she said, the foundation counsels many people "who are being accused of defamation, who say what they said was an opinion."

Because it is often hard to tell fiction from fact, employers sometimes unwittingly allow falsehoods posted on the Internet to inform their decisions about prospective employees, said Larry Ponemon, president and founder of the Michigan-based Ponemon Institute, which specializes in privacy research.

"Cyber-slamming is a recent phenomenon (that is) going to create an entire area of legal issues for people who were denied potential employment because someone decided to publish slanderous information on them," Ponemon said.

A February survey by the institute showed that roughly one-third of Internet searches by hiring managers yielded content that became the basis for denying jobs to the candidates.

That's what one Yale law student believes happened to her earlier this year when none of the 16 law firms to which she had applied for a summer job made her an offer. The student, who did not want her name used because she feared retribution online, has published articles in legal journals and says she has "great grades."

She was one of several female Yale law students singled out by anonymous contributors to a popular law school message board on AutoAdmit.com, a discussion forum for law students.
The postings contain derogatory references to her mental capacity and sexual activity, claim she had sexually transmitted diseases, and threaten sexual violence against her.

The woman said the law firm representatives who had interviewed her must have seen these comments. She said the representatives had asked her for personal information that she had not included in her resume, but which appears alongside the AutoAdmit.com postings when her name is searched on Google.

"That's really unprecedented; most students get multiple job offers. I have been applying in an area I have an immense expertise in. I knew my stuff," said the student, who said she does not know who wrote the anonymous postings.

Law firms are reluctant to hire students whose names are associated with anything scandalous, said another Yale law student. An AutoAdmit.com chat last winter discussed the student's breasts and posted her photographs.

"They don't want their clients to be able to Google their attorney's names and see this," she explained.

The women had asked Jarret Cohen, the owner of AutoAdmit.com, to remove the discussions, but he had refused.

"It's a slippery slope once you start deciding what is and what isn't allowed to be said," Cohen, a 23-year-old insurance broker in Pennsylvania, wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle. He acknowledged that violations of privacy on discussion boards are "part of a growing social problem on the Internet."

Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School, denounced the assertions on AutoAdmit.com as "false and hurtful" in an open letter to the law school students. "These malicious attacks, as well as racist, sexist and homophobic speech, have no place in the Yale Law School community," Koh wrote. AutoAdmit.com is not affiliated with Yale.

Under current law, a court cannot oblige the owner of a site hosting defamatory postings to remove the offensive content, said Fertik, whose company has hundreds of clients across 17 countries.

ReputationDefender (www .reputationdefender.com), which was founded last fall, charges $29.95 to try to remove each item from the Internet, and a monthly fee of $9.95 to continue to monitor postings about an existing client.

Sporadic attempts to rein in defamatory content have been unsuccessful so far. Last month, bloggers denounced as censorship a call to ban anonymous comments and delete abusive posts.

The proposal by Tim O'Reilly, a book publisher and chief of O'Reilly Media Inc., came after Kathy Sierra, a Colorado blogger, received anonymous death threats and was frightened into canceling her appearance at O'Reilly's conference in San Diego.

Damaging postings don't always come from ill-wishers. Individuals post provocative information or pictures of themselves, only to learn later that employers see these posts as reason not to hire them, said Jennifer Sullivan, a spokeswoman for CareerBuilder.

Applicants typically get in trouble, she said, by posting "information or photos that show them drinking or using drugs or being irresponsible," Sullivan said.

"The Internet is a big tattooing machine that makes you relive momentary mistakes and lapses in judgment that we all make," said Fertik, who said ReputationDefender often helps people remove items they had posted on the Internet about themselves.

Still, it hurts far more when such postings appear without the knowledge of their subjects -- as happened to Danté Roberson, a jazz and hip-hop drummer from Oakland. When an anonymous posting on MySpace.com in January accused him of being a thief, Roberson hired ReputationDefender, which persuaded the owner of the specific MySpace.com page to remove the offending post that Roberson said could have cost him numerous gigs.

"Who wants to have all that kind of mess in their camp?" said Roberson, who makes a living touring with bands. "You are trying to run a clean and sober camp and all of a sudden this (appears). Who wants to have this dirtiness on them?"

E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen@sfchronicle.com.
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/05/06/MNGBEPM57J1.DTL