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Managing Your Reputation Online

Startup TrustPlus plans to help users build up an online reputation.

Shopping online requires trust between buyer and seller: often, each relies on the other’s reputation. Today, a Waltham, MA, startup called TrustPlus is releasing a new product that collects information about online reputations so that people can better manage their own, and investigate others’.

Developing a reputation: The TrustPlus overlay, shown above, integrates with a user’s Web browsers to display reputation information on sites such as Facebook, Craigslist, and eBay. The overlay works even when the companies aren’t formally connected to TrustPlus.

A person’s online reputation is often stored in a variety of disconnected websites, such as Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and LinkedIn. Other sites, such as Craigslist, have no way of measuring reputation at all. The problem, says TrustPlus CEO Shawn Broderick, is that reputation scores aren’t centrally managed, and often the rankings lack context. TrustPlus plans to make reputation portable by centrally collecting information about a person and displaying that information wherever he or she does business or interacts online.

“We don’t aggressively go out and collect data,” Broderick says. Instead, TrustPlus users can give each other ratings, including information about how they came in contact with each other. Rather than using a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, users can rate people at six levels of trustworthiness. Broderick says that he plans for the system to follow a bell curve, reserving the highest ratings for rare occasions. Systems that frequently hand out the highest ratings tend to be skewed, he says, and can encourage people to react irrationally to critical comments. Users can add information to their TrustPlus reputation by submitting profiles from sites such as LinkedIn. This requires sharing passwords with TrustPlus, but users can choose to submit profiles without verification, although they won’t carry as much weight.

Terrell Russell, co-founder of online identity-management system ClaimID and a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that most people don’t need to worry about having a bad online reputation. “The much bigger problem is total obscurity,” he says.

But Russell notes that there are cases when online management sites can’t do much to help a damaged reputation. “If you’re Miss South Carolina Teen USA, we can’t help you, and probably no one else can either,” he says.

A TrustPlus reputation will appear in several ways. Users can choose to install TrustPlus on their browsers, so that an overlay of TrustPlus ratings will appear when they visit sites such as Facebook, Craigslist, and eBay. They can also download a TrustPlus badge and include it on their website, inviting others to research their reputation through TrustPlus. Finally, some sites, such as the video classified site iMoondo, have integrated TrustPlus as a site-wide reputation system.

When viewing someone’s reputation through TrustPlus, users will find that the rating will change depending on the circumstances. For example, Broderick says, a person who is rated as a trustworthy seller of electronics might have a lower rating when she goes to sell a home, due of a lack of data in that context. In addition, ratings are affected by social networks. TrustPlus includes a feature called the Trust Circle, which allows users to specify whose opinions they trust most, or to limit who sees the ratings they choose to give. Trustworthiness ratings are weighted differently depending on who a person knows. For example, when a buyer views a seller’s TrustPlus reputation, the ratings of the seller that are given the most weight are those that come from the buyer’s friends.

This is powerful, Broderick says, because it prevents dishonest people from artificially bolstering their own ratings with the help of their friends. “Bad actors will become isolated islands of reputation, cut off from the mainland of good people,” he says.

Chris Dellarocas, an associate professor of information systems at the University of Maryland, says that public ratings systems sometimes discourage people from saying bad things when they ought to, while anonymous ratings systems cause trouble by failing to hold people accountable when they bad-mouth another person. TrustPlus’s model has promise, he says, because people may be more willing to give honest ratings when they know they can control who sees them. However, Dellarocas notes that systems like this work most easily when people are buying and selling, and he’s curious to see how well it will work in other contexts, such as when someone is meeting another person via Facebook.

The TrustPlus software released today is only an early test version. But the company plans to launch a full version later this year. Broderick says that he and his colleagues are currently finalizing deals to integrate their system with other companies and to license a people-search feature from an existing site. The company doesn’t intend to charge for maintaining users’ profiles, and it has no plans to add advertising features. Instead, the team intends to make money by adding support services, such as payment processing and tracking systems, for people who are buying and selling through free online classified sites, much like those offered by the company Channel Advisor, which supports buyers and sellers using eBay.

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