Monday, July 9, 2007

IPA's Google smokescreen

One of the most underreported stories in Chicago is the saga of International Profit Associates, a high pressure business consulting company based in the northwest suburbs that has drawn attention from the New York Times, Washington Post and Inc. Magazine, but relatively little locally.

The company's history is a virtual stew of sex, fraud and politics. It is being sued for sexual harassment by the federal government, it is under fraud investigation by the Illinois Attorney General, it has an "unsatisfactory record" according to the Better Business Bureau, its founder is a convicted criminal, its lawyer is "Individual H" in the Tony Rezko indictment and private fraud lawsuits are pending.

You would expect that a simple Google search would yield flashing lights for prospective clients to steer clear of the controversial company, or at least ask some pointed questions. That's not the case. A Google search will produce a long list of innocuous, self-serving entries. When you click on them, you'll find that most lead right to the IPA website, which has many pages and boilerplate material.

IPA most likely is producing these results intentionally as a public relations technique to hide bad results. The Washington Post outlined the technique in this fascinating article last week. Some bad results can be removed from the Internet, but news stories and public records usually cannot be. Therefore, the best way to "hide" the bad results is to bury them under a landfill of positive results. Most casual Google searchers do not venture past a page or two of results.

I checked with several computer experts I know and they told me they were certain that IPA's Google results were being manipulated. In isolation, such techniques probably are not illegal. However, in conjunction with a fraudulent operation, it might be. An aggressive state Attorney General would get to the bottom of this. So far, Lisa Madigan's investigation is at four years and counting and nothing has happened.

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