One of the things that have kept people honest on sites like eBay has been a serious take on reputation. Doing business through that portal has required that the chatter about you as a buyer or a seller be good, something like a credit rating. Too many “negs” on your record and you can be branded a bad risk. But what happens when that reputation-intensive mindset escapes the controlled, hot-house environs of eBay and lands on the mean streets of Google, Yahoo and the other major search engines? Consider this example:
You are the Stan of Stan’s Pizza and Goulash, an up-and-coming pizza and goulash place in a hip downtown area. Being the tech-savvy child of the ‘90s that you are, you have a great website with all sorts of bells and whistles like online ordering, e-mail reservations and even live chat to help work out any special problems. You have spent time and effort getting to the top of the search engines and now, whenever someone types in “pizza and goulash,” the first listing is yours!
Imagine your horror when you see the second result from some fairly critical blogger who wrote:
Stan’s Pizza and Goulash is Armageddon on a plate, a veritable dietary Megiddo in the heart of our city! There was nothing more disturbing than having the so-called pizza and goulash actually delivered to the table. You don’t know which dish is which and the way it tastes, you don’t care! Stay away from Stan’s and pray that his mother goes straight to hell for bringing this gastronomic anti-Christ into the world in the first place!
Now anyone who finds your restaurant and may be interested in coming down for pizza and goulash will see this blogger’s end-of-days take on your food. True, it sounds like Jeremiah Wright on a bender, and the temptation to dismiss it as such is very strong, but you can’t ignore it. The fact is that rational or raving, it’s still going to cost you business. Knowing that, what will you do?
The short answer is that what you do depends heavily on what you have already done.
Planning for Reputation Management
There was a time when a business’ website was really little more than an online brochure with some contact information and a live e-mail link. Those days are long gone. Today, a business’ website is far more sophisticated. This is no surprise since the Internet environment is also far more sophisticated and part of that sophistication is what we now know as social media. Through forums, blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging and, of course, e-mail, people are talking to each other like never before. They are also sharing opinions like never before. Whereas before, Stan’s might have had newspaper and magazine articles to worry about; today the opinions that once took hours or even days to reach their audience now take little more time than the time to write the piece in the first place. Delivery is nearly instantaneous. That means if you don’t plan ahead, you will find yourself playing catch-up, doing your best to mitigate damage that should have been prevented in the first place.
This is where planning comes in.
According to Glen Allsopp, the author of Online Reputation Management: All You’ll Ever Need to Monitor and Manage Your Reputation Online, online reputation management is the “process of monitoring a brand online, knowing how to deal with any negativity and understanding how you can pro-actively protect your brand via conversation channels.” Essentially, this means you will have to use the same social media to repair the damage that the blogger in this case used to inflict it.
There are, says Allsopp, three steps to effective online reputation management—management, monitoring and repair. You have to take each of these into account when you develop your reputation management strategy.
- Management . This includes a strategy to monitor your brand, having a solid understanding of how to deal with issues, developing multiple conversation channels (a presence on various social media sites) so they are available when needed, and actively building your brand in a positive way.
- Monitoring . As self-evident as this may be, there are some specific things that need to be included in any monitoring plan such as why you should monitor your brand online, what you should be monitoring such as keywords or phrases and what tools you should be using to do it.
- Repair . The damage is done, now what? Effective repair can be accomplished once you know why the writer said what he did, can deal with the issue correctly, and can take ownership of the search results and change them.
Taken together, these three parts can create a powerful reputation management strategy that will serve you well. The key to repairing damage, though, is being able to change the search results and that means taking advantage of those multiple conversation channels you have been building up.
Take Advantage of Social Media: Fighting Fire with Fire
The goal is to either raise your brand name above the troublesome search engine result or bury it—however you look at it, it is the same thing. The more results that you can get between the page top and that awful review the lower on the page it goes. Then, if that continues, the nasty thing drops off the first page altogether. Whatever you call it, the complaint is gone and you can move on to more pleasant things.
I think maybe Joe Pesci said it best in the movie, Casino, “There are a lot holes in the desert; and a lot of problems are buried in those holes.” You have to have a similar mindset when it comes to your reputation: You have to bury the problems. I am not suggesting digging a hole and then inviting the offending blogger to a picnic, but I am suggesting that you bury their words.
Unlike the release of the original piece that caused all this consternation, burial can be a time-consuming process. It could take hours, days or even weeks to generate enough search engine results to push that problem into the hole and bury it. That is going to depend on how active you have been with the social media sites, those multiple conversation channels that you should have been cultivating since Day One.
Burying the Problem
This may sound negative, but the process of digging your hole and burying your problematic search engine result is really a very productive one. It is all based on generating as much positive material as you can. Just remember that whatever you do, use the same search terms that brought up the negative result as the keywords for anything you create.
- Build on someone else’s site . No, we are not talking about hacking into someone’s website, we are talking about social networking sites, forums and other sites where you can build pages with links back to your site, set up profiles in the name of your website or company and communicate with people. With these, you are trading on the authority and good name of the sites you are active on, such as twitter , mySpace , Squidoo or Hubpages . Just remember that if the offending blog came from one of the sites you plan to pursue, you will need to drop that site since your entry on it will not out rank the problematic entry.
- Build-up your website . You have the URL, you have the relevance for the keywords. Build some useful pages for your site that concentrate on those keywords. Make sure you follow good search engine optimization protocols and this tactic can only help your existing ranking while adding search engine results that will push the offending entry down toward the bottom of the page.
One interesting tactic that falls under this strategy is to create your own negative pages about yourself. I know, it seems a bit counter-intuitive, but people do tend to look for negative search engine results first, so if you create pages that sound critical in their keyword use, but are loaded with positive content, you can diffuse potential issues. For example, the negative phrase “high prices” can be turned into something like “High prices are no problem at Stan’s!” With a little work and creativity, you should be able to head off many critical searches this way.
- Answer the challenge. This is simple, it is straightforward and it will make you look good to boot. If the criticism is on a blog or a forum, then stand up to it, answer the critic as professionally as you can and try to help them. Why do this? You do it because anyone who finds that page will also find your response. They will, in effect, get both sides of the argument and will see you as concerned and professional.
Keep it an Isolated Incident
Do you want to spend your time doing business or acting like some cyber-Pesci digging holes in the Internet desert? Churchill once pointed out that criticism is like pain in the body, it tells us that there is something wrong. When someone criticizes your company, it is time to take a look—a good, hard look—at what that person is complaining about. This is your opportunity to improve your product, your service, maybe your internal procedures. If you are getting complaints about certain things, then look at those issues and solve them. Be open, communicative and above all honest and you will head off further reputation problems.
The Bottom Line
Even the best companies get negative feedback and dings to their reputations, but they can rise above it because they can deal with the feedback and mitigate the effects it can have. That is a skill you need to cultivate for your own business as a part of your public relations effort. After all, it’s your good name on the line. Protect it.