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What's Your Online Reputation?

Reputations of companies and individuals can easily be marred by online postings, including threads from email and IM.
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“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.


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