Online Reputation: Between SEO, Journalism Ethics and the Nature of Reputation Itself
September 22nd, 2007

A few weeks ago, Jon Garfunkel from Civilities.net followed Ariadna’s thread through the Googlian maze for the case of “Allen Kraus & Search Engine Obfuscation“. This web endeavor brought to surface more dilemmas than one can see at the first glance. Many have written on the NYT article by Clark Hoyt: Jack Shafer of Slate (and his follow-up), David Weinberger on his JOHO blog, Seth Finkelstein, Nick Carr, JD Lasica, some rather on the SEO side of it, while others emphasizing the journalism ethical issues.

With so many things being said even more than once, I think it’s not bad to condense the wordy cloud around Allen Kraus topic to a few main ideas that concern altogether the web users looking to do some maintenance work on their good reputation online, the online journals with their archiving techniques and the search engine algorithms and policies.

The advices Shafer, Lassica and Garfunkel give on the user perspective are more than plenty. Simplified, a website with your name, in which you talk about yourself and get linked to other relevant and well ranked websites through quality rich link words should be enough do the trick of putting you up on search engine results when people type in your name to look for you. A blog doesn’t hurt either, being of additional help. So, by binding together some “SEOr” (Search Engine Orientation for ordinary people, as Garfunkel chooses to call it) and social networking power, you should be flying towards the top. Let’s hear some (more) expert voices:

Jack Shafer

Start your own home page […] Take advantage of Google’s algorithms by getting friends to link to your home page.

JD Lassica

Start a blog. Post photos on Flickr. Join a social network. […] Within a few months, your blog home page will be the top result in Google, some of your blog posts will also be at the top, perhaps your photos will be up there as well […]

Jon Garfunkel

Here’s the only SEOr advice you’ll ever need: create a web page about yourself, or through a directory service (such as the professional directory LinkedIn), and have multiple sites link to it using your name as the anchor text. That may be all you need.

So much for getting to be seen online. As for your reputation, this may be tricky or it may be rather simple issue, depending on how you look at the nature of the reputation itself. I think Jack Shafer gets to the point when he says reputation is not something you own (like clean cloths given at birth), but a social construct formed of images the others have about you.

[…] you may think reputation belongs to you, but it doesn’t. It lives inside the heads of other people, and now inside Google. It’s their possession. If you want to change it, do something to convince people and the Web that you aren’t who they think you are.

So, though you don’t own it, don’t be sad about it, for you have power over it. You can work at how much people “digg” you by continuously cleaning your front lawn of the garbage others throw un/intentionally over the fence. What you say or do offline and online gets to people and reshapes their imagery of your persona. Sounds ease? May be ease to practice it too, at least if you do it responsibly and without grunting about it.

This should please or at least clarify the minds of the web users when it comes to doing their part. The journalism archiving methods and the work with search engines are fields that require more ethical clearing and technical expertise. Should newspapers delete, correct or do follow-ups and annotations to previous articles in the light of new evidence, at customer requests or complaints? Which is the best strategy for the public editor in his role of ombudsman? David Weinberger seems to filter the essence of the ethical dilemma when he says:

Removing articles from the record destroys the value of the record. You shouldn’t write history by rewriting the record. And harvest the power of the crowd to create more topic pages and more context.

A good article on the consequences of rewriting history was authored by Elizabeth Zwerling from the Online Journalism Review, just a few days before the Allen Kraus case, almost like seeing it at the horizon.

Also, search engine experts should join the team and help with these issues. A SEO solution for newspapers, that should solve both the ethical problems and the structural relevancy of the news tree over time, is suggested by Weinberger when he talks about a contextualization of the news, rather than programming the web both to remember and to forget (a sort of subconscious and even unconscious web, modeled upon the human mind) that Viktor Mayer-Schönberger propose to Hoyt. As we can observe in his citation just above, Weinberger states that the contextualization could be achieved by creating more topics to categorize news, by help of the crowds. That means the help of the smartmobby people who yearn more and more for an active role, including in journalism, right? Anyway, as Jay Fienberg observes in a comment to the Weingerber’s post, it seems that the journalism still has a few hypertext literacy gaps to catch up with.

While the NYT may choose to avoid (or, otherwise, fail to achieve) being literate in hypertext, if it’s going to put its work on the web and care about contextualizing that work, they’re going to have to move on from thinking about “what” and “how” and start thinking about “who,” “where” and “when.”

The future semantic web should consider these issues in its passing from technical to more social and contextualized search algorithms. And also, as Gurfunkel advocates, search engine providers should care more for the basic SEO education of their users, both the searchers and searched for.


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