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“Googling” has become the preferred way to check out a potential date, anonymously, and without the target’s knowledge. You just put the name into the popular search engine to see whatever may appear, good or bad. But what would a potential customer find if it did the same thing for your business, or your key employees? Would a prospective hire or acquirer be scared away by your firm’s online tracks? In fact, many firms may not even realize the full picture of how they appear online. Whether or not a business intentionally has a Web site for sales or marketing, its name may show up in search results because of articles posted online, listings in product-comparison sites, or even in passing references in blogs or attack sites created by unhappy employees — and that’s not the kind of “marketing” you want. While negative publicity in newspapers or other traditional media has always been a business risk, limited circulation reduced the exposure. Some information has always been accessible to the curious, but only at the cost of hiring a private investigator or subscribing to an expensive reporting service. CASTING A WIDE NET — EASILY Today, however, locating information about a business has become much more convenient, by simply going online and looking for it. Search engines like www.google.com or www.www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp make it as easy to find the proverbial needle as it once was to locate the entire haystack. Similarly, ready access to nationwide newspaper archives at sites such as www.www.newspaperlinks.com/home.cfm lets anyone find local news reports about your firm, quickly and inexpensively. An ancient dispute with a neighbor or public interest group may be easier to find than today’s glowing sales or profit data. Before Internet resources, a business might have had an opportunity to explain or rebut negative information in a credit report, or discovered in due diligence for an acquisition. A give-and-take dialogue with the person seeking the information could prevent any negative consequences. WHAT’S AT STAKE Online, however, adverse information — whether or not you know it exists — might well scare off a firm that you would prefer to speak to, before that firm ever contacts you for your side of the story. You would never know of that interest in the first place, to have a chance to make the sale or explain the negative information. Even worse, the risk isn’t limited to what may be online now. Old press releases and news stories, abandoned sites from prior promotional campaigns or “wild and crazy” images of your executives in school might all appear in search results. Archival sites such as the “Wayback Machine” ( www.archive.org) or Google’s cache can preserve old Web sites and information that you thought had been deleted. As a result, shrewd firms must be aggressively concerned about their online presence. A Web-based firm that depends on Web visitors must always monitor its Internet presence — and improve it whenever possible. For example, a professionally produced Web site with proper metatags and indexing will push older, irrelevant hits to the bottom of a search list. Paid ads at leading search sites or at industry-specific sites will also control the top of the search results. TAKING DEFENSIVE ACTION Just as it can be helpful to run a credit check on yourself before applying for a loan (to clean up any problems in advance), firms can regularly monitor their appearance online through tools such as Google’s beta-test “alert feature.” Google itself promotes that tool for “keeping current on a competitor or industry.” (Note that Google requires a license for commercial use of its features. www.google.com/terms_of_service.html) Don’t forget that these techniques work just as well when seeking information for your own firm to use, as well as for checking how others may see you. Before incurring costs by accessing and using specialized databases, you can seek preliminary information online yourself about prospective customers, suppliers or employees. Remember, too, that just because something was typed online in html code doesn’t necessarily make it true. Always consider a Web site’s bias and reputation for accuracy before you rely on its information — just as you would evaluate any other print- or television-information source. Online media can err or provide only one side of a complex story just as easily as traditional media. Perhaps the most important lesson, however, from considering how your firm appears online will be what that process teaches you about designing Web sites and marketing materials. It is far easier to write a press release or an e-mail message properly the first time, in a way that should not embarrass the firm if it is found online months or years later, than to try to explain it after the fact, or have it removed from the Internet. In our wired world, what you write today may survive forever digitally. The best policy to control your firm’s Internet presence attacks the problem at its source — by assuming that every document will exist perpetually online.

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