Internet-based review forums are the bane of many business owners. But as Dr. Tara Sermer battles to save her online reputation, the Canadian veterinarian fears she could be getting scammed in the process.
Sermer, owner of Green Lane Animal Hospital in Thornhill, Ontario, believes the same company promising to restore her online reputation as a veterinarian is linked with one marring it with negative reviews of her practice. A Google search of the practice's name returns a blog containing negative comments. The site www.publiccomplaints.org features an anonymous reviewer who described Sermer's clinic on Aug. 9 as more interested in selling products than practicing veterinary medicine.
By Oct. 10, 19 replies to this review were posted. Only two contained positive remarks.
Days after the initial post in August, Sermer says she was contacted by USA Reputation, a company that promised to hide the negative reviews from public view if she paid $999 followed by a $99 monthly fee.
The timing of both acts has Sermer suspecting that the two groups — USA Reputation and publiccomplaints.org — are in cahoots, but so far, she hasn't been able to prove it. USA Reputation denies working with the blog, whose creators could not be reached by the VIN News Service.
Based on a complaint filed by Sermer, the York Regional Police Department investigated and found no evidence of fraud or criminal harassment, said Police Constable Rebecca Boyd, a department spokeswoman. The department has declined to intervene further; the issue is a civil matter, she said.
Sermer has filed an appeal with the department, asking them to reconsider. She's also solicited help from College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO), the government body that regulates veterinary medicine in the province.
Officials declined Sermer's request, stating the CVO has no control over Internet reviews. The agency apprised Sermer of ethics rules adopted in 1989 that bar her from enlisting customers, friends, relatives or private companies to post positive testimonials in an effort to outweigh the negative reviews.
“We can’t use testimonials to advertise,” said Martin Fischer, the agency's regulatory and practice resource officer. That means Sermer has a duty to track down positive comments and have them removed, he said.
Ontario’s regulations require advertising to be factual, accurate and verifiable. “If they create a zillion positive reviews, that's not accurate, positive and verifiable,” Fischer said, adding that he knows of no efforts to recraft the ethics regulations to account for the proliferation of reviews on the Internet.
In the United States, such regulations are defined by states and might not cover online situations. Pennsylvania’s code of professional conduct for veterinarians, for instance, states that "veterinarians may not solicit clients or announce fees and services in a manner that is misleading, fraudulent or deceptive.”
Unlike regulatory agencies, Steven Engle, a sales representative for USA Reputation, said his company is in business to help those unfairly attacked on the Internet. He insists that USA Reputation has no ties to blogs or other review outlets. Rather, the company has devised ways to drive bad comments far down Google’s search results.
“We push up the positive comments and drive down the negative comments," Engle said, explaining that USA Reputation does this by creating 5 million IP addresses and linking them together. Fees assessed to clients help support dozens of programmers that work for USA Reputation to clear their names, he said.
Still maintaining that USA Reputation is somehow involved with publiccomplaints.org, Sermer is continuing her quest to get to the bottom of her negative reviews — opinions so vague they have her wondering about their sources. With no easy way to contact the creators of publiccomplaints.org, she has no lead as to who is leaving anonymous comments about her practice. Her investigation has unearthed only fictional physical and e-mail addresses, she said.
Meanwhile, Sermer's practice has suffered a slight slowdown of the growth it's experienced since she opened in June 2008, though it's still increasing at a rate of 15 percent to 20 percent a month.
Google policy changes also aren't likely to help, either. Last month, The New York Times recounted a story about the owner of an online eyewear company who mistreated customers and relished in negative complaints posted on the Internet. He knew the more times the company's name was published on the Internet, even in a negative light, the higher it would filter in Google searches, attract attention and lead to sales.
Days after the story was published, Google changed its procedures so companies that were intentionally bad to customers would not be rewarded with high rankings. A search for Green Lane Veterinary Hospital still puts the practice's critics near the top of the list.