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This year, more than 1.7 million students are graduating from college. And many are engaged in a ritual of the digital age: cleaning up their online profiles. As NPR's Steve Henn reports, an entire industry has sprung up to help.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: I became interested in this business of cleaning up online reputations because two guys told me a great story. It's a story about how they founded their own business. And the story is so good it's become a bit of an urban legend. It begins when Pete Kistler was in college at Syracuse.
PETE KISTLER: My GPA was 3.9. I had a lot of relevant internship experience, and I wanted to go into software.
HENN: So Kistler started applying to a bunch of top computer software firms, looking for a summer job.
KISTLER: And by a bunch, I mean dozens and dozens. But I'm not hearing back from anyone.
HENN: Kistler says he was puzzled. No one was even calling him. Then...
KISTLER: One of my buddies who works at one of the places that I applied to actually reached out to me and he said, you won't believe this, but the reason that you didn't get called back was because they Googled you and they found another kid with your name that's a drug dealer, and they thought that you were him.
HENN: When Pete Kistler was telling me this story, he said he still remember the exact moment he Googled himself.
KISTLER: I remember it vividly. You know, my stomach dropped and I thought, oh, my God, everybody who Googles me probably thinks I'm this kid, I'm this drug dealer. And there are all these Google images of a car crash and DUI.
HENN: It was almost kind of funny, he says, until he tried to clean up the mess.
KISTLER: At that point, I didn't really know what to do because I didn't know how to fix my own search results in Google.
HENN: There are reputation management companies out there that could help Kistler out.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Reputation.com combats negative material.
HENN: But the cost is steep. Michael Fertick helped create this industry and now runs reputation.com.
MICHAEL FERTICK: Another one of our products starting at $1,000 dollars a year, OK - let's just be clear - called Reputation Defender, will help you take control of your reputation online.
KISTLER: Of course, I had student loans and there was no way I could possibly afford that.
HENN: Did you talk to your parents about it?
KISTLER: Yeah, I did. And they didn't have the money either.
HENN: These companies advertise a lot.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Call 800-222-6638 now for your free reputation assessment.
HENN: You've probably heard messages like these. Reputation.com is an underwriter for NPR. And the biggest reputation management companies spend millions on marketing each year. But Danny Sullivan, the editor Search Engine Land, finds these ads unconvincing.
DANNY SULLIVAN: They usually make me kind of laugh because the promises tend to sound like, we're going to sort all this stuff out for you, and the reality is that nobody can really guarantee to do that.
HENN: Sullivan says if there's bad information out there about you online, you usually can't simply erase it from the Internet. No one can. Instead, these services...
SULLIVAN: They all do work kind of the same way.
HENN: They try to flood the Internet with new, more positive stories and content about you, stories that link to each other and are written in ways that make them pop to the top of search results.
SULLIVAN: You try to get the good stuff to come into the top results which will push down the bad stuff.
HENN: It's called search engine optimization, or SEO. And Pete Kistler says when he was in college he didn't have the cash to pay for it. But he did have a friend with some SEO experience: Patrick Ambron. And soon, they realized that maybe there was a business in this for them.
PATRICK AMBRON: So what we wanted to do was create a product that allowed anybody to do the same thing we were doing but do it themselves for free.
HENN: They launched a company called BrandYourself, landed some venture capital funding and opened an office in New York City. They now offer more affordable paid services, too, and a couple colleges including Johns Hopkins and Syracuse offer these services to their undergrads. But Ambron acknowledges they can't make bad stories just disappear.
AMBRON: What you do is you push unwanted things down with more positive relevant stuff.
HENN: And this story of Pete Kistler the computer programmer being mistaken for Pete Kistler the drug dealer has become ubiquitous. Newspapers picked it up. The story has appeared in USA Today, The New York Post, Forbes and on CBS and in the AP. BrandYourself even has a photo, a mug shot actually, on its website of this supposed drug dealer, Pete Kistler. But the thing is, I can't find a record of this guy, this convicted drug dealer named Pete Kistler anywhere.
I've looked through public records I could access and LexisNexis. I've called in NPR's librarians. And we just can't find any reference to a Pete Kistler who was dealing drugs. That photo on BrandYourself's website is actually of a man named Adam Laham. I asked both Pete Kistler and Patrick Ambron if they had any records, and they sent us a link to a story about a rape from 1988. We asked what state this alleged drug dealer was arrested in, and they didn't respond.
Still, this tale of the two Pete Kistlers - the programmer and the drug dealer - has been repeated so many times online it's become the Internet's approximation of truth. And if you think about it, that's how these online reputation management businesses work. You take the story about yourself that you want to tell and you repeat and you repeat it until that's the only story about you anyone sees. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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