What's Your Online Reputation?

Wednesday May 16th 2007 by Eric Spiegel
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Reputations of companies and individuals can easily be marred by online postings, including threads from email and IM.

“They found the killer.” I had just received this instant message from our product support intern. The horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech had taken place that morning and the IM forwarded had a link to a MySpace page. I clicked through and found the owner of the page was an Asian, male Virginia Tech student who had pictures of guns plastered all over his site.

I thought, “Yep, this must be the one.”

Turns out I was wrong, as were thousands of others who received that link. Within hours, ABC News had posted a story online with the headline “I Just Want To Clear My Name.” Turns out that this string of IM’s was ignited by circumstantial evidence fueled by instant access from sites like MySpace.

So what does this have to do with IT? Plenty. Reputations of companies and individuals can easily be marred by online postings, including threads from email and IM. We can all be falsely indicted or lavishly praised from enemies and friends. The catch is that there may not be much difference.

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All software firms have competition and many have disgruntled employees (or ex-employees). If you used Google to find out what others were writing about a software product, how would you know if what you are reading in a forum was fact or fiction? A product could be torn apart by someone claiming to be a dissatisfied customer when they are really someone working in a competitor’s sales department.

On the flip side, a forum posting where a so-called customer is singing the praises of a product might be a ruse from someone in sales at the product’s company. There simply is no sure fire way to know if what you read online is truth or fiction.

It certainly is convenient to be able to search cyberspace for opinions on products you are evaluating or people that you plan to work with. The key is to take what you read online with a grain of salt. Yes, that means be a skeptic.

That’s not to say you can’t learn some interesting nuggets about products, companies and people online. I’m going to focus on product evaluations, but similar considerations would make sense when digging for information about potential employees and/or business partners.

Here are some ideas on where to find information and what to consider.

1. Forums. These are truly the danger zones because you’ll find a mix of truth and fiction among the many postings. To generate positive buzz about a product, it is becoming more of a standard practice for software firms to seed forums with glowing postings. Same goes if you find just one negative posting, where the competition is trying to fuel negative opinions.

There are a few things to look for to legitimize what you are reading. First, if you find only one posting about a product, then that should be a warning sign. It may have just been the vendor, competitor, etc. and it is better when multiple customers have made the effort to spread the good word about a product.

Second, if the postings sound like a sales pitch, then where there is smoke there is fire. Even if it wasn’t posted by someone from the vendor, I know of companies that will write a posting for a legitimate customer or partner and then ask them to post it for them.

Finally, take notice if registered users are writing these postings or if they are posted by guest users This isn’t to say a fired employee or aggressive marketing person wouldn’t go so far as to register under a fake name, but it is less likely.

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2. Blogs. There has been a lot of stink recently about how some bloggers have had their opinions about Microsoft products’ subtly influenced by some savvy marketing folks at Microsoft. This is because targeted influential bloggers received a free laptop with “no strings” attached. While many of these bloggers disclosed this, others did not, causing a few of the non-disclosing bloggers to be “outted.” Whether this type of marketing ploy actually results in positive reviews is up for debate.

The key issue here is that these bloggers are for the most part independent, thus you must consider if they are required to follow a code of conduct. You can Google the blogger’s name to see if they have been called out on product reviews in the past, but once again, be careful not to give too much credence to a single posting. In a somewhat ironic twist, the bloggers online reputation can impact the product’s online reputation.

This can really make your head spin. For example, if Blogger X says that Product Y is the cat’s pajamas, yet Blogger Z says that Blogger X was bought off by Company that made Product Y… well you get the picture. I’d suggest you give more credence to a blogger you like and read regularly than to one that you stumble upon in a search.

3. Analyst Reviews. Have you ever read an overtly negative review from a big time research firm? Probably not. This is because these analysts usually write reviews about product firms who are clients. Not always the case, but especially for the smaller vendors, it helps to “pay to play.” The research firms spend a lot of time trying to debunk this, but many of us who have worked in the space know it to be a fact. These reports are at least well thought out and for the most part written by experienced analysts. However, don’t assume any analyst is truly independent. And of course, a likely downside is that you have to pay for these opinions.

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4. Mainstream product reviews. When it comes to product reviews, some of the same cautions apply to the mainstream media as the bloggers and analysts. However, they are more likely to be held to a code of conduct, especially if they work for a public company. And you can be sure it is a rare case where a product reviewer has been bought off by a software vendor. Those that write consistent glowing reviews are less appealing than those who have not shied away from speaking negatively about products in the past.

5. Vendor web site. Now it may seem obvious that you cannot trust what a software vendor would post on their own web site. But keep in mind that if they are quoting a named customer you can be sure they are the real deal. Take it from one who has tried; it is not easy getting any public company to state on the record their opinion about a product. Legal departments don’t lightly condone affiliating their company name. So even if the words are spiced up a bit, if a customer is willing to lend their name to a product, then they are likely using it to solve a real problem.

The important thing is not to jump to conclusions based on one or two items posted on the web about a product, person or company. Online reputations are difficult to evaluate, but if you do your homework and review all potential sources, you should be able to put together the pieces of the puzzle and come to your own conclusions.

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