Among the various industries spawned by the Internet, one of the most intriguing is the field of managing and repairing the online reputations of people and businesses.
It's a classic case of finding a need and filling it. Review sites such as Yelp and others can trash a reputation, so other sites and services have emerged that, for a fee, will help improve your standing throughout the digital realm.
David Powell, a pediatric dentist, never gave much thought to such matters until he received an email recently from a San Diego company called Review Concierge. It warned that it had found a grade of F for Powell on one of the dozens of sites it monitors.
Review Concierge, which charges up to $200 a month for its services, encouraged him to get in touch "and create the online reputation that you deserve."
That's smelly enough. But making the whole thing stink even more was the fact that the F, on a site called YellowBot, was based on a single bad review posted anonymously on another site in 2011 — for a Los Angeles dental practice that Powell had sold 14 years earlier.
"It just makes you wonder how legitimate all this is," he told me. "Somebody waited 14 years to post a bad review? For a practice I left in 1997? And then this other company wants money to fix it?"
It doesn't take much conjecture to think that somebody might be posting bogus complaints so reputation-repair services can step up with offers to make the problem go away.
Not so, declared David Engel, founder of Review Concierge. "We'd never do that," he said. "It would go against who we are."
It will come as no surprise, especially to owners of small businesses, that even one negative online review can have lasting repercussions. I'm always hearing from business owners who say they've gotten a raw deal from a review site.
A 2012 report from the Virginia consulting firm BIA/Kelsey estimated that small and mid-size businesses spend at least $700 million a year on tools and services designed to keep their cyber-profiles shiny and bright.
Some services say they can erase negative reviews from top sites such as Yelp and Angie's List — which both say is impossible. Others say they can offer guidance for balancing out negative reviews with more factual or positive comments.
"The Internet can define who you are," said Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants in Irvine. "You either allow it to define you — or you decide that you're going to present the facts fairly."
Bill Wohl, a spokesman for the Reputation Institute, a New York consulting firm, said anonymous reviews can be especially challenging to refute. In such cases, he said, it's important to get your side across.
"A lot of small businesses are ill-prepared to deal with negative content online," Wohl said. "You may need to turn to those who know how to get it done."
Powell, 71, told me he's always tried to do right by his patients.
"I've never had a lawsuit filed against me," he said. "I've never had problems with the state dental board. I've taught part time at USC."
Powell said he opened his pediatric dental practice in the mid-Wilshire area in 1976. He sold it to an associate in 1997 and moved to Utah for six years.
He returned to Southern California in 2004, settling in Encino and working part time at other dentists' practices. Since 2011, Powell said, he's worked only one day a week at a clinic in Valencia.
So it came as something of a shock to learn of his F grade on YellowBot — a site he'd never heard of — from Review Concierge, another site he'd never heard of, based on an anonymous comment posted 14 years after he'd left his L.A. practice.
The review said the dentist and his staff "made me feel like my questions and concerns were stupid."
YellowBot is an online yellow pages based in Burbank. A close look at its listing for Powell showed that the comment originated on a site called Wellness.com, which features reviews of healthcare practitioners. But when you clicked a link to the original review, it was nowhere to be found.
The only comment about Powell on Wellness.com was positive, saying that his office would "absolutely" try to schedule an immediate appointment in the event of a dental emergency. It was posted this month.
Alex Vaccaro, YellowBot's director of marketing, acknowledged to me that her company's site routinely "crawls" other sites and copies their listings — a common practice for Internet companies seeking a toehold among the many online directories available.
She speculated that Wellness.com must have recently updated its comments, dropping old or questionable reviews. When YellowBot "recrawls" Wellness.com within coming weeks, Vaccaro said, its listings similarly would be updated.
I asked what good that does for someone like Powell, who, through no fault of his own, finds himself the subject of a seemingly unwarranted online attack that's apparently spreading to other websites.
Isn't this unfair?
Vaccaro thought a moment before answering.
"It's difficult for people and small-business owners to transition to the new digital landscape that's out there," she said. "The best thing I can say is that that's how it works now."
Next week: Deciding whether a reputation-management service is for you.