Are You a Felon? According to Google, You Just Might Be

This startup is out to clean up your online profile

For the record, Pete Kistler—age 26, resident of New York, brown hair, slender build—is not a felon. The problem is, until recently, just about anyone who Googled him would have thought he was.

It started in 2009 when Kistler, a junior at Syracuse University, couldn’t figure out why all his friends were getting internships but he couldn’t even land an interview. He was an honors student with a 3.9 GPA, clean cut with a professional demeanor, and his “criminal” past amounted to a single speeding ticket. Still, “I wasn’t getting any calls back,” he remembers, “and I was wondering why.”

That’s when Kistler Googled himself.

Turns out, there are a few Pete Kistlers out there—one a suspected drug dealer, another implicated in some sort of sex crime. Naturally, Kistler panicked. “I went to Google and looked up how to remove bad results, and I found a bunch of really expensive reputation-management companies,” he says. One wanted $8,000 a month for its services. Kistler didn’t have that kind of money.

Fortunately, he did have Patrick Ambron, a friend and fellow Syracuse undergrad who knew his way around search-engine optimization. Once Ambron cleaned up Kistler’s online profile (“a mess,” Ambron recalls), the pair had a thought: Why chase after internships when they could go into the reputation-repair business on their own? “I realized we could make something that would be really easy to use and allow anyone to do it, because so many people need it,” Ambron says.

Their company, BrandYourself, opened for business in March 2012, and two years and a round of VC funding later, it has come a long way from upstate New York. On a recent afternoon, Kistler and Ambron held court in their lower Manhattan HQ, an airy loft with pressed-tin ceilings, 25 full-time staffers, and two dogs named Grace and Sophie. The co-founders will not disclose financials, but report that BrandYourself signed up 150,000 users in its first eight months.

Clearly, everyday people aren’t merely cognizant of their online reputations but have begun to regard themselves in much the same way brands do—as commercial entities that will be appraised and selected based on the results of a Web search.

According to a Pew Research survey, fewer than half of Americans in 2006 routinely searched their own names online. By 2010, that had grown to 60 percent. “Ten years ago, when people talked about personal brands, it was about celebrities,” says Daniel Korschun, fellow at Drexel University’s Center for Corporate Reputation Management. “Now it’s making a jump over to the mainstream.”

A competitive job market has made us especially conscious of our online reputations. According to studies by Harris Interactive and Cross-Tab Marketing, 75 percent of HR executives now research potential employees online, while 70 percent report having found something that’s caused them to reject a candidate. And that doesn’t necessarily mean an arrest record. More and more, content as relatively harmless as a tasteless selfie or a casual reference to drinking or smoking pot is at issue. And it’s clearly not just about job searches—Google handles some 1 billion searches for people’s names every day.

No wonder rep-management firms have sprouted like mushrooms. Most of them target the business world, typically large corporations that can afford a high level of image custodianship. The top-shelf plan from Reputation.com, for example, runs $15,000 per year. And it’s a growth industry. BIA/Kelsey forecasts that small- and medium-size businesses will drop $5 billion on reputation-management services by 2015.

Kistler and Ambron aim to demystify the process, doing damage control for the average Joe as opposed to Coca-Cola and IBM. Their homepage features a four-step do-it-yourself section that walks visitors through the basics, like setting up a personal online profile and improving one’s own Google search.

The company’s proprietary software gives users a report card-style visibility score, and shows who has been Googling them lately.

The online tutorial is gratis, but for $100 annually, a premium plan enables members to track an unlimited number of personal links and get real-time alerts when there’s a shift in their search results. Beyond that, the concierge service (which starts at $299 per month) pairs the client with an in-house expert to create websites, profiles, articles and blog posts with the aim of putting salutary information high up in search results while minimizing negative content. Ambron stresses those working with consierge clients are all highly trained and have degrees in journalism and communications—in stark contrast with firms that farm out content creation, sometimes to companies overseas.

What do SEO experts have to say about the startup’s strategy? Lori Randall Stradtman, author of Reputation Management for Dummies, calls it “clever how they’re weaving in their own platform”—meaning those who come across someone’s BrandYourself profile, in effect, also see a plug for the company. Rebecca Lieb, an analyst for Altimeter Group, points out that “this is very basic SEO, but it’s an intuitive interface with an interesting building component.”

Drexel’s Korschun applauds its offering an affordable option for everyday people while noting its institutional prospects. Both Johns Hopkins and Syracuse University have enlisted its services for their students. “The product allows students to examine and improve their online presence,” says Mike Cahill, director of career services at Syracuse. “It’s not enough to tell students not to put bad things up online, but that they can create a positive image by doing various things.”

And yet, as Lieb stresses, BrandYourself faces the same hurdle all other rep-management firms do—claiming to know how to manipulate online search results when, in fact, nobody really does. “Google controls this stuff, and Google is a black box,” she says. “These are all businesses based on delivering something that is ultimately controlled by [an entity] that is out of their control.”

Stradtman wonders why the average person would even need such a service, claiming that 95 percent of the population would be served by a solid LinkedIn profile.

Kistler counters that in an age in which we all live online, everyone can use some guidance when it comes to managing their reputations. “Most people look you up online, personally and if you have a business,” he says. And even if you don’t have bad stuff to hide, he adds, “finding good stuff just solidifies their decision to do business with you.”

And, Kistler and Ambron are banking on doing business with them.