Social Credit Points Rack Up Online

Peter Pirz was so irked about a bad experience on eBay , he set up a Web site to tell the world.

The first part of the transaction went smoothly, and Pirz, who works as a logger in Canal Flats, British Columbia, was impressed enough to add to the seller’s positive feedback — before he actually got the item he paid for. Big mistake.

It never came. “I went through all the proper channels to get my money from this fellow, but have had no success,” Pirz said. “I tried to get eBay to change the feedback I left him, but no success.”

Finally, Pirz resorted to creating his own complaint Web site where he could vent and where others could share their own pain.

The eBay seller had a good eBay reputation, possibly because buyers and sellers are leery about saying anything negative in eBay’s feedback system, according to Joseph Sinclair, author of eBay the Smart Way.

“Sellers are kind of paranoid about the feedback they get,” he said. “They’re scared to death to give any buyers negative feedback, because they’re afraid they’ll get negative feedback in return.”

A good reputation is worth plenty on eBay, Sinclair said. “If you don’t have 98 percent positive feedback, you’re probably losing a lot of sales.”

Because of this pussyfooting on eBay, smart — or cautious — buyers often turn to regular search engines to turn up the bad news on a prospective seller on sites like Pirz’s — and they’re not alone. It’s becoming standard operating procedure to google those with whom we deal.

A July 2004 study by MSN and Harris Interactive found that more than one in five people had searched online for information about a business associate, while almost 40 percent put their own name into a search engine to see what the results would be.

While consumers have gotten used to searching for clues about potential dates, mates, employees and customers, sorting through the results can be wearying. For someone who participates in a lot of online forums or news groups, the curious may have to sort through pages and pages of meaningless results to find hints about character.

Opinity hopes to change that by providing a sort of social credit report. On Monday, it will launch a reputation management service that lets users register the online identities they use in forums, auctions, online storefronts and social networking services.

Opinity is the latest example of a new trend: online reputation management. Competitors Ziggs and ZoomInfo have their own versions of services that help people find out about people.

While sites like Ziggs, which launched in March, and Jigsaw, another B2B networking service, let users create their own profiles, Opinity combines peer review with weighting algorithms to bear on a person’s activities across the Web. Or at least, those activities that users are willing to submit to the service.

“Opinity’s version of online identity is a very broad concept,” said CEO Ted Cho. “It includes not only peer review, Yahoo Auction ratings or eBay feedback. It also includes the social aspects of a person’s reputation, from social networks, testimonials, membership in societies and personal preferences.”

Image-conscious users sign up for free on the Opinity site, registering user IDs for as many Web sites and services as they choose. They also must provide login information for each, so that Opinity’s software can automatically verify the accounts by logging in.

After logging in, they can also search for others and rate them. If Peter Pirz and that irresponsible eBay seller both were members, Pirz might have saved himself some trouble and money.

Opinity’s weighting algorithms take into account a variety of factors to come up with the Opinity Reputation Score, not unlike a social FICA score. There are also category-specific scores, because Pirz probably wouldn’t have cared if his trading partner didn’t get good reviews from women he met at a dating site.

Cho acknowledged that someone with a bad reputation in one online community could simply leave that identity out of the registration, but said it’s a way for someone to build a good online reputation despite past mistakes. As long as the person behaves reputably using the registered IDs, there’s no problem; if he messes up again, it will be plain to all Opinity users. “Once an id is verified, it’s there, you can’t take it off,” Cho said.

Opinity users also can appeal bad reviews via a formal dispute process. In the case of revenge reviews, Cho was confident that the weighting algorithms would keep them from harming a person’s rep.

Cho said the service needs about 1 million users to achieve critical mass. He plans to license the software to smaller Web sites that want simple, plug-and-play reputation management, as well.

ZoomInfo, launched in March, offers people search via what it calls a “summarization search engine.” It scans Web sites, press releases, electronic news services, SEC filings and other online sources to create an index of information about individuals.

“We crawl the Web,” said Russell Glass, director of consumer products for parent company Zoom Information. “But as opposed to just looking for pages and matching keywords to those pages, we extract entities from the page. As it relates to people search, when we see a person’s name, we start looking at the associations of that person.” Search results are in the form of a summary about the person, along with links to the Web sites that generated the information.

“We’ll aggregate all this information under that person’s name. You end up getting all this different information and you can dig down into specific information we find on that person,” Glass said. “It’s constantly refreshed and in-depth information all culled from the public Internet.”

People also can register with ZoomInfo for free and create, correct, update or add to their summaries — but they can’t change the links that appear under their summaries, which continue to be updated as new information appears on the Web.

ZoomInfo Enterprise is a four-year-old paid service that offers more features to business customers. The enterprise version lets corporate recruiters search by attributes, such as job title, location or company name to identify potential hires who haven’t posted resumes to job boards.

ZoomInfo summaries appear in natural Web search results, and Glass said the 25 million personal summaries the company’s servers have built to date usually are among the top results for a personal name search.

“If you know someone is searching your name, that gives you incentive to come and build the summary,” Glass said.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Glass, china and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.” These new reputation management services may not let us mend our online reps, but at least they let us get a grip on how others see us online.

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