Reputation Management Online – Turning Digital Lemons Into Delicious Juice

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Nobody has to explain to you the importance of your reputation particularly if your business is in a personal service industry where your good name and brand are essential to attracting and retaining clients/customers. Professionals like doctors, attorneys, CPAs and dentists live or die as a business based largely on how they are perceived by the marketplace. The same holds true for consumer service businesses like salons, dry cleaners, restaurants and gyms.

The truth of the matter is that all businesses, large or small, consumer based or business to business rely heavily on their reputations even if they don’t realize it.

Online Reputation Management – The challenge

Today, managing the reputation of your name and brand has become significantly more important than it was even five years ago. Thanks to the boom in user generated content and social networking, your name or your company name is likely to appear on content other than your own digital property. Hopefully that content will have a positive spin for your brand as that’s a great source of free PR but there is the risk of negative comments as well.

These comments, both positive and negative will crop up as Facebook entries, replies to blogs, blog entries, forum topics, reviews, videos, online business directories and a host of other properties. All of these entries will likely be indexed by the search engines and can potentially appear on the first page of a search inquiry.

Take a moment and think about how people find information on individuals or businesses today. If someone wants more information about a restaurant, dentist, auto repair shop or any organization they most likely enter the name of the company in Google and click search. If there is negative content indexed, and if the page that it is on outranks at least one of the top ten ranking positive pages, then that negative content will appear on the first page for the entire world to see.

If you don’t stay on top of what the rest of the world is saying about you, you’ll never truly understand your target market and how their opinion of you, your employees and your brand affects your business. Never before have the “people” had so many opportunities to express themselves anonymously and never before have businesses been faced with such a complex task protecting their name.

Online Reputation Management – The consequences

Ten years ago if a local business did something newsworthy it might get 2 minutes on the local TV news and maybe a mention on a radio station. At the end of that news cycle, usually 24 hours, the public had no way to retrieve the original media. The only permanent record would be print such as newspapers, maybe a magazine article and perhaps a public document if the business violated a law. The only way the public could retrieve that “permanent” media was through a physical search of a library, newspaper morgue or a courthouse search.

Today all of that media is available online and it stays there unless the publisher pulls the page or it becomes de-indexed by the search engine.

Search “United Airlines Customer Service” in Google and you’ll likely find a very negative return on the first page that was originally posted in 2005. The same long lasting complaints apply to “Dell customer service”. Out of the top ten returns, 5 are negative and they range in date from November 2010 to July 2005.

Can you see how a new Dell customer who was searching for contact info for Dell customer service might develop a negative opinion of the company before he or she even talks to them?

It’s not just the big guys getting bashed

And now that Google is focusing on returning local results first, the small business owner is even more susceptible to attacks on reputation. In 2008 a small specialty meats firm in Los Angeles, who doesn’t even have a website, was forced to recall 600 pounds of British bangers (sausage) because his labels did not say that eggs are part of the ingredients. The firm uses egg as a glaze before cooking the meat and eggs can trigger allergies.

If you Google that company name today (we’re not going to give the name because we know the owner personally and he’s a jolly good chap) the recall announcement has finally fallen off the first page and now doesn’t appear until the third. The negative returns are almost all exclusively on government agency pages.

Today, even though he doesn’t have a website, his company enjoys a good reputation thanks to the positive reviews on business directories and from retailers who sell his products. However for six months after the original recall he fielded at least one phone call a day from customers wanting to know the details.

Online reputation can have a very real impact on day to day business.

Reputation management as a business strategy

Knowing how you are perceived by the public and just what is being said about your reputation is a task that a business ignores at its own peril. But how does a small business with limited resources monitor what’s being said about it online?

There are really two approaches to managing your reputation. One is expensive in terms of dollars and the other can be expensive in terms of time spent.

Online Reputation Management Approach #1 – Bury your detractors

bury-your-competitionThere is an emerging industry of “specialists” who you can hire to manage your reputation. Basically theses companies will use a search expert and software specifically designed to find and scrape any mention of you, your firm and any employees you designate and compile a fairly exhaustive database of all mentions of your organization.

Then the task is to wade through all those mentions and identify the negative comments. Once they are identified, the service will attempt to use SEO to bury the negative comments or at least get them off the first page.

This is where it can get dicey. Obviously they can try to optimize and build links back to any properties that you own but there is little they can ethically do to increase the juice of third party properties. However some of these companies will pay bloggers to promote their client using keyword specific posts. They will also pay people to create positive tweets and to make positive comments on relevant forums. In short, they are using a type of spam to create more positive content in an effort to “bury” negative comments.

And this doesn’t come cheap. For a small business there can be a one time fee of $1,000 to $10,000 then a monthly fee to monitor the internet from that point on. There are no guarantees that their magic will work.

Online Reputation Management Approach #2 – Do it your self and become a better company

good-businessIf you keep your ego in check there is actually a good deal you can learn from negative content. In fact depending on the way you respond to negative info you may find yourself uncovering more effective advertising methods, solidifying your relationship with existing customer base and developing new business opportunities. In short, the time you and your staff invest in the process can actually end up making you money.

The toughest part about implementing reputation is just getting started. It may seem like a massive task but if you plan it out you can get most of it done and learn about your market place and your competition in the process.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Know what you are going to search for. Create a spread sheet listing all the names you want to search and also all the targeted keywords that you use for SEO and any PPC campaigns you have.
  • Have a column on the worksheet for the URL of the page with the comment and a column to check either good or bad content.
  • Note who is running AdWords ads on the page where the comment is left and the keyword that you searched on. If you find competitors, this keyword may be something you want to add to your own PPC campaigns.
  • Have at it. Search the first two pages of returns. The odds that anyone will go beyond the first two pages are slim so you’re reputation, good or bad, will depend on these 20 returns.

Do the searching yourself or assign it to one person. Depending on how many returns you get, you may want to break up the task of analysis among two or more people.

What you’re looking for in reviewing all of the comments include:

  • Trends in keywords or phrases in both positive and negative comments. These phrases can be hot buttons and give you a better insight as to why people like, or hate you. Use these phrases to better target PPC campaigns and SEO articles.
  • Opportunities to respond. If the negative comments appear on a property that allows you to respond such as a blog or forum, research the negative remarks and then respond with an honest straight forward comment. If you made a mistake admit it and tell what you have done to correct it. Nothing is more powerful than a wrong righted and odds are the original poster will make a positive comment in response to your action.
  • Trends in complaints. Do they come during a peak season? Are the complaints about your products or your services? Use these trends to improve your processes and give the visitor a better experience.

This exercise can seem pretty daunting if you have a long list of comments to wade through but the information you mine from the comments can be invaluable.

Once you’ve done your best to mange existing content, then it’s time to institute policies that define how you will respond to negative comments as well as maximize the amount of positive content populating the web.

Here are a few suggestions to help you better manage your reputation and brand.

  • Don’t use deceptive marketing techniques. The internet is swamped with deceptive advertising and consumers are quick to blast those companies in blogs, forums, tweets and all forms of social networking messages. If you advertise 50% off an item but omit that the offer is only valid on purchases that total $100, expect to see your name associated with words like scammer, crook, and waste of time. Make sure your ads are straight forward. You’ve got a great product or service; you don’t have to trick people to visit your site.
  • Implement a customer forum. Dell did this to avoid all of the complaints appearing on the internet and has experienced a reduction in negative content. Customers who are upset are going to post somewhere, why not on your site where you have an opportunity to interact and save an account.
  • If you don’t have a blog start one and blog on a regular basis. Remember that the blog does not directly promote products or services but offers an opportunity to talk about what’s new with the company in terms of improvements. Frequent posts will keep the blog fresh and increase the opportunity for high search engine ranking.
  • Include articles of interest and value on your site, not just promotional content. If for example you are a CPA you can run a series on your take on the new tax bill. Offering valuable content that does not directly pitch your services will encourage other publishers to link to your site.
  • Above all…don’t ignore your customers. They may be misguided or they may have a legitimate complaint, however your response to them has to be respectful and professional. Ignoring the problem will not silence the voice.
  • Have an experienced attorney selected. On occasion you may find slanderous content that defames your name or your company brand. Letting the world know you take those kinds of attacks seriously will provide a form of deterrent.

If you still think that reputation management is more work than it’s worth, keep in mind that according to 42% of consumers use comments found on the internet to confirm their buying decision. An almost equal number, 43% have reversed their buying decision based on web content. And the real kicker is that 91% of journalists and reporters use the internet to research their stories.

Your customers, potential customers and your community think your reputation is important…so should you.

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