Beyond Google

Web Trackers: Keep Tabs on What Internet Sites Are Saying About You and Your Business

Photograph by Ed Wheeler
Photograph: Ed Wheeler
We all need to know what Web sites are saying about us. If you run a small business, you have to market yourself on the Web to potential customers and partners, but you also must protect your reputation online. And everyone who uses the Internet needs to keep close watch on personal privacy. "You have to find a balance," says Bobby Morgenstern, a Boston-area real estate agent with Coldwell Banker. Like other agents, Morgenstern has to deal with these issues frequently. The golden rule: Always guard your home phone number zealously. Starting with online reverse-lookup directories (Reversephonebook.com is one), a home phone number opens many windows into your private life.

Don't use your home phone number on business-related documents. Instead, take advantage of inexpensive mobile phone plans. "I give out my cell phone number almost exclusively," Morgenstern says. Just beware of plans that charge for each incoming call.

Morgenstern maintains an AOL profile and several Web pages that advertise her business, but she watches the details closely to keep the information they contain generic.

And while personal networking plays a big role in her work, she declines to answer non-work-related questions for surveys and group directories. "Many say they don't share the information, but you don't know," she notes. Morgenstern also avoids online surveys and removes herself from online phone directories such as Google's (click here for directions on removing your number).

Watch What You File

Information on paper can get online, too, so scrutinize anything--even small forms--you file with a public entity, says Jim Harvey, a partner at the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird, where he advises clients on privacy and data management. "If a corporation does a transaction that involves a public authority, like buying property, they have to expect the details will be available publicly. And once it's online, it's out of the box," he says.

When people disparage your business in forums or elsewhere online, your options are limited by a formidable legal heavyweight in the First Amendment right to free speech, Harvey says. "If someone is untruthful or is engaging in a campaign that might break a law, things can be done. Otherwise, people are free to say what they want to say," he says. Check out the public records on your company and/or yourself at Search Systems to see what factual data your clients or partners might uncover.

Should you also pay for a report on your company from a service such as KnowX, which aggregates public records? Probably not, says Genie Tyburski, a law librarian at Pennsylvania-based Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. She manages The Virtual Chase a site packed with Internet research advice. KnowX doesn't dig as deeply as a good professional researcher will, she says. "A good search absolutely requires the use of multiple sources of information," she says.

For a thorough picture, Tyburski recommends that you hire a public records research expert to do an initial investigation covering public records, Web mentions, and information available by phone from professional or public agencies. Look to the Association of Independent Information Professionals for referrals, and expect to spend $300 to $500, she advises.

To monitor Web information about your company, Tyburski recommends a service such as TrackEngine, which alerts you to mentions of keywords at specific sites--from newsgroups to competitors' sites. It keeps tabs on up to 10 different sites for $20 a year, and $60 per year buys monitoring of 50 sites.

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