Protect Your Assets by Neal B. Custer: Go beyond search engines to research a business

NEAL B. CUSTER, president of Reveal Digital Forensics & Security, a subsidiary of Custer Agency Inc. Adjunct professor at Boise State University.August 6, 2013 

How do we define reputation in an age of ubiquitous computing? In the past, the confidence that came from working with a given business was the result of meticulous research. Instead of randomly picking a business out of a phone book, a diligent client would scrutinize a company’s reputation by contacting its current clients, examining its rating with the Better Business Bureau, and conducting independent research to get a good idea of how professional and trustworthy the company was.

Unfortunately, this level of diligence has become less common in the digital age. Instead of conducting manual research, many people simply defer any questions of reputation to the same place they pose all their questions: the Internet. It is dangerous to presume that a business is reputable simply because it shows up on the first page of the world’s favorite search engine, yet this is a trap that many users fall into. We want to hire someone for a task, so we type the task into Google, click the first link we see, and probably contact the business shortly afterward.

The problem with this approach is that the concept of reputation means something very different to a search engine than to a human being. A search engine is concerned primarily with the user experience of a given website — how quickly it loads, how efficient its pages are to navigate, and so forth. Search engines will assign “authority” to various websites based on a number of factors, including the number and type of other websites that link to it, and websites with authority will rank on the first page of the search results. Theoretically, this concept is supposed to ensure that the highest ranked websites are the ones that are the most reputable. The search engine sees thousands of links to a given website with the keyword “x,” and assumes that the website is an authority for the keyword “x.”

However, the number of websites linking to a particular business means little in terms of real reputation. Consider the act of hiring a private investigator. In Idaho, there are no licensing requirements for private investigators, which means that the level of professionalism and experience can vary widely between two given investigators. One may have decades of experience, an ethical reputation and a mile-long list of professional references, while the other may simply have woken up one day and said “I’m now a private investigator.” That person may have been convicted of a felony, and his training may have consisted entirely of watching reruns of “The Rockford Files,” yet he has a chance at the No. 1 spot on Google simply by hiring the right search-engine optimization company.

According to SEOBook.com, more than 55 percent of the clicks for any given search are given to the top three listings. Half of those clicks (27.5 percent of the total) are directed at the first listing. Simply by showing up first on a search engine result page, a business can market itself as “No. 1” without necessarily having the credentials or the experience to support that assertion.

When hiring an investigator, or for that matter anybody claiming to be an expert in a particular field, there is an assumption that the expert might end up in court. Your company’s reputation will therefore become intermingled with the expert’s . The ethics and credibility of experts become reflections of the companies or individuals that hired them. By hiring a supposed expert without the proper credibility, credentials and experience, a business owner jeopardizes the professional reputation of his or her own company.

What can business owners do to protect their reputations while hiring experts? Unfortunately, while it is simple to find the highest ranked expert on a search engine, there is no one-click solution to conclusively determine whether an individual or corporation is truly reputable. Search engine listings should not be trusted, nor should the company’s own website or testimonials. The only way to truly determine whether an expert is actually an expert is through independent research.

Instead of just clicking the first link that pops up on Google, look instead at the reviews for the company. Search for the company and the principals with their names in quotes to ensure exact matches, and thoroughly digest any reviews available. Do not focus on the content of a single review, but try to get an idea of the general public opinion of the company. Many companies write excessively positive reviews for themselves under false names, and sometimes their competitors will even write negative reviews. Focus on averages; do most customers appear satisfied with the service? Are there multiple complaints of the same nature? Look especially for feedback from websites like RipOffReport.com, and check the company’s Better Business Bureau rating.

The Idaho court repository is a great place to do research on a company’s principals. Records for nearly every criminal and civil court case are maintained online at www.idcourts.us. All you need to do is enter the name of the person you are researching, type in the words displayed to prove you’re a human and not a computer, then view the records. Researching a person’s criminal history is a crucial step before hiring him, whether he is a painter, a plumber or a private investigator, and public record databases like the Idaho court repository are free from any marketing spin. They convey the facts and nothing else.

Selecting the right person for the job involves far more than just a Google search. To be a truly informed consumer, it is critical to independently research both the professional reputation and the credentials of potential candidates. Simply trusting a search engine to make the best decision lacks due diligence and can lead to a destroyed reputation for your own business.

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neal@custeragency.com

Written in collaboration with information-security expert Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations. Sources for pie charts: Hubspot.com, Ruby Media Group, PCrecruiter.net.

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