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In his third year of college, Atif and his friends had gone celebrating their college team’s victory in a football game. They had had a little too much to drink and on their way back were pulled over by a cop. Although Atif wasn’t driving, they were all made to go through the tests for drunk driving. Since the driver passed the tests, the officer let all of them go.

“The problem,” says Atif, “was that one of my friends had posted a picture of me doing the walk-in-a-straight-line routine on Facebook, with a comment saying ‘Lol! Drunk driver Atif!’ It was pretty funny then.”

But it turned out that when he began applying for jobs during his last semester in college, three potential employers, while doing some research on him, stumbled upon that picture. “Even though I wasn’t the one driving that day, they assumed I had actually been booked for a DUI (driving under the influence). They said that they couldn’t hire someone who was this irresponsible.”

Atif did manage to land a job eventually. But others who have left the mark of their “indiscretions” on the Internet may not be as lucky. What’s worse is that if your not-so-flattering story goes viral on the Net, it’s almost impossible to cover it up. And this is where online reputation management (ORM) comes in.

There are now a number of agencies that work to clean up your image online. From trying to remove any damaging references to managing your visibility on search engines they work to keep your image on the world wide web the way you want it pure and blameless.

“Essentially, people deserve to control their information”, says Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, one of the world’s leading ORM firms. “A downside of the Internet is that a lot of times, people can access your information without your knowledge.”

However, if you do look to ORM to do a bit of Internet trouble-shooting for you, don’t expect it to obliterate that irksome and embarrassing comment or photograph floating around the information superhighway. As G.R. Rajesh Kumar, founder of Permformetris, an Indian ORM firm, explains, “The problem with the Internet is that once something gets on it, it’s there to stay. So ORM companies do not promise to remove something from the Internet totally. Rather, ORM is about damage control the best it can do is to reduce the chances of people finding it.”

In other words, ORM tries to push a damaging piece of information as far back as possible. “For instance, since most people do not look beyond the third page of search engine results, we aim to, at the very least, push it back that far. How far we can push a search result in rankings depends on how well known the incident is. Our overall goal is to make sure it’s not in the top 10 search rankings,” says Kumar.

Raj, a Delhi-based businessman, found the service perfect for his needs. His financial consulting firm was doing well until an irate client started posting damaging tales about him on online discussion boards. “I got almost no new clients, and most of the existing ones were also scared to deal with me,” he says.

Ultimately, Raj turned to an ORM firm to fix the problem. “They adjusted things so that my name and business didn’t turn up at the top of Google’s search engine results,” says a relieved Raj.

This service called search engine optimisation (SEO) is the one most commonly availed of by customers, say ORM firms in India.

But there is more to ORM. A full-fledged online reputation management service usually involves a dedicated team surfing the Internet and keeping track of instances when a client's name crops up.

This would mean participating in online discussion forums, Wikipedia entries, monitoring social networking sites, or tweaking search engine results to either increase or decrease the client’s visibility on it.

Of course, such careful monitoring of the Internet comes at a price. The cost, says Kumar, can vary depending on the type of service the customer opts for and how long he keeps the service going. “Most companies would charge you about Rs 40,000-Rs 50,000 a month,” says Kumar. “But usually, ORM will always cost at least a few lakhs, since it would take at least a few months’ work to fix a client’s problem.”

That said, there is no doubt that ORM is in its infancy in India. Only a handful of ORM firms exist and there is a widespread view that an average individual would never need to avail of ORM. As Nikhil Runta, marketing director, Google, India, says, “Three to five years ago, both the Internet and social networking sites were fairly new concepts in India. People weren’t sure how to go about using them. But now, most people are much more careful. And social networking sites too have added privacy settings, giving people greater control over who they share their content with.”

Runta feels that ORM might make sense if you are a celebrity or a public figure. “But as an average person, unless you do something very stupid, you are never going to get the value you are putting into such a service.”

Still, awareness of ORM is growing. And if you have got a damaging social media backfire to take care of, you may wish to turn to ORM to bail you out.

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