Online Reputation Management

Social media and the Internet are presenting physicians with an array of new challenges and opportunities. Many patients use the Web to find health care information and connect with providers. Unfortunately, the Internet also provides a (very) public forum for people to vent their frustrations.

Sometimes physicians are caught by surprise when they find that inaccurate or misleading information has been circulating the Web, or that a disgruntled patient has posted a negative review or blog post maligning a physician or practice. In addition to countless personal blogs featuring malcontented patients’ rants, sites like DocZoc and even Yelp allow any willing person to write a review of their provider.

Many physicians are upset to see their good name dragged through the online mud, and wonder what they can do about it. There are some companies who see an opportunity to help these physicians, with services broadly termed “online reputation management.” It's important to note that the WSMA does not endorse any individual online reputation management company, nor does the WSMA endorse these companies generally.

But any physician willing to put in a little effort can save money by using the same methods as these companies to combat negative information and reviews. And the WSMA has compiled information to help you do that.

Online reputation management companies: What they promise and what actually provide

There are many businesses that work to diminish the visibility of posted negative reviews and information, usually by helping clients propagate positive information and reviews. The aim is not to remove negative information about a physician, but rather reduce its impact and visibility by making negative information harder to find in a sea of positive information, most of which is created or controlled by the client.

Sadly, these businesses can’t usually do what the hiring physician needs: the eradication of a particularly negative blog post or review. Information posted on the Internet is generally never completely deleted, and a physician has little legal remedy to force a website administrator to remove misleading or even inaccurate information contained in posted opinions and reviews.

Unfortunately, there are very few ways to force a site like Yelp to remove reviews, even if the physician believes that they contain slander/libel. Some companies purport to be able to do this, but commentators opine that their results are unreliable. It has even been alleged that these companies prey on individuals who desperately want certain reviews or information deleted, even though the company has no real power to force a website to remove this content. The individual ends up paying for months of “service,” but never sees any actual results.

The same can be said of legal cases in which a physician plaintiff initiates suit against a website, but the court ultimately finds the review to be legally protected opinion and free speech, rather than slander/libel. The physician ends up paying enormous legal fees only to lose in the end.

Statistics show, however, that few people look past the first few results when conducting an Internet search. Fewer still look past the first page of results. Thus, many businesses offer to essentially make negative results less visible by making positive results more likely to appear first.

Talking things into your own hands, and what you can do on your own

You don’t need to hire a reputation management company to improve your online presence or suppress negative information. Here are a few steps you can take on your own to get the same results:

  1. Complete social media profiles.  It may seem trivial, but completing profiles on established social network sites can be an easy and effective way to proliferate positive information about yourself, while simultaneously pushing unfavorable information farther down the list of search results. Sometimes, sites like LinkedIn or Twitter have enough clout that these results pop up first when someone searches your name—provided, of course, that you’ve taken the time to make your own profile.

  2. Sign up for “Google Alerts.” You don’t need to pay someone to monitor what is said about you online; you can ask Google to do that for you! Sign up for “Google Alerts,” and the search engine will email you when new content using your name (or business’s name) is posted online.  You can stay up-to-date when new Web pages, articles or blog posts mention you. Go to google.com/alerts to sign up.

  3. Don’t get sucked into online arguments. Though it can be tempting to respond directly to something you see posted online, it generally isn’t a good idea to post a reply back. Even the most diplomatic response may escalate the situation, and by engaging the post and the individual authoring it, you will bring even greater attention to the post. Instead, try to contact the site administrators to see if they will remove the inaccurate or misleading post.

  4. Ask your patients to write reviews. I’ve heard from many physicians that, while the vast majority of their patients love them, a single unhappy or unreasonable patient has posted an unfair or inaccurate review maligning the physician on a site like Yelp. The best way to combat a negative, inaccurate or unreasonable Yelp review is to surround it with a sea of positive reviews. Consider putting posters or flyers in the waiting room which encourage patients to review you online. The deluge of reasonable reviews will demonstrate that the negative review was merely an outlier, and the negative review will seem more unreasonable or unreliable amid the numerous positive reviews.
If you have questions or would like additional information about online reputation management or health care and the Internet, please contact Tierney Edwards, JD, at tee@wsma.org.