Online reputation management is a niche area of internet marketing, but one that is becoming increasingly important. Despite being a subset of social media marketing and search engine optimisation, both of which have a plethora of good practical information available about them, online reputation management remains something of an information vortex where good actionable advice is rarely shared in great detail and where professional reputation management services are extremely costly and are therefore the reserve of household brand names with large budgets.
However, there are steps, which all businesses can take to manage their reputation online and minimise the impact of any negative publicity, which can adversely affect your brand, and the performance of your online marketing campaigns.
In this practical guide I’ll share some of the techniques used by professional reputation management firms to ensure their clients brands are well represented online. You’ll see these techniques aren’t especially difficult, but as with all areas of online, executing them badly can in some cases cause more harm than good.
What is online reputation management?
We’re going to start at the beginning, more advanced readers may wish to skip this section.
Online reputation management is the process by which a company can build postive feedback, respond to negative sentiments about their brand in online conversations and minimise the effect of negative publicity by suppressing damaging web pages in Google search results. These are the two main battlegrounds for online brand protection campaigns – social sites and Google search results.
Lets illustrate how bad press can damage your reputation online with an example:
Search on Google for Nestle and at position 5 and 6 on the first page of results you’ll find the ‘Baby milk action’ Nestle Boycott campaign. A negative piece of publicity for this multinational company.
As you would expect the larger your company the more powerful the negative publicity against you is likely to be but companies of all sizes are vulnerable to this as search engines are now the default portal for anyone looking for your company online, the effect of negative publicity showing up in search results can be business critical.
Negative publicity is not just confined to bad press showing in search results. As online discussions on forums, Twitter, Facebook and product review sites become more popular and customers turn to these channels as part of their buying decision companies need to be aware of where and how their business is being discussed. Hotel review site Trip Advisor is the best example of how this new channel is changing the way a whole industry operates.
Trip Advisor reviews can make or break a hotel. But reviews and online conversations are becoming more popular in all industries so few companies are safe from the backlash of disgruntled customers online these days.
Reputation monitoring tools
The first step for any company concerned about their online reputation is to setup monitoring to see where you’re being talked about online. You can setup alerts to automate this process and respond quickly to negative discussions. Below I’ll introduce you to a few tools which can help your online reputation monitoring.
Google Alerts are the simplest way to monitor who’s talking about your brand. Setup an alert to email you whenever a new mention of your brand name gets discovered by Google.
Omgili forum search
The Omgili service monitors thousands of online forums and returns mentions of your brand or a particular keyword you want to monitor whenever it is mentioned in forum threads. This is a good way of discovering conversations about your brand in older forum threads which could potentially become active again in the future.
Several services exist to help you monitor mentions of your brand on Twitter. Hootsuite and Tweet Alarm are two worth trying out. As Twitters index tends to move faster than Google’s it is useful to get separate alerts directly from Twitter search results.
Raven Internet Marketing Tools
Raven Tools is a paid suite of tools which are designed for managing SEO and social media campaigns. Their brand monitoring tool integrates a system called ‘social mention’ which offers useful way of tracking the ‘sentiment’ of mentions of your brand name online. The search tool will identify all the mentions of your brand and you can then visit each site and decide whether the sentiment of the post is positive, negative and neutral. This allows you to conduct regular reporting on whether the sentiment of conversations about your brand is getting better or worse over time.
A premium tool designed for large organisations with very sensitive brands, Brand Watch provides an automated version of the sentiment analysis which is conducted manually with a system like Raven Tools.
The first battlefield: Search engine results pages
Although you probably rank in the first position for searches of your own brand name in Google and other search engines you may have less control of the results which come up in positions 2-10 for searches on your brand terms.
Typically Google will only return 1 or 2 pages from the same website for any particular search term so if you’re Nestle, nestle.co.uk will come up number 1 and 2 for searches on ‘Nestle’ but the rest of the results on the first page will come from other sites.
Even Google themselves are effected by this with archived news stories showing in results on a Google search for the brand name ‘Google’.
While you can never fully control what pages Google shows in its results you can work to influence them. The simplest way to suppress negative publicity in Google search results is to run content across a number of different websites. Take for example a search for ‘nike’ in Google.
8 out of 10 results on the first page are owned by different divisions of Nike who use different domains and sub domains:
For large businesses, running a number of sites and interlinking between them is a great start to protecting your brand in Google but for smaller businesses the expense of running several websites may outweigh the benefits. There are however plenty of places where you can establish pages or sub domains on other websites with minimum time or expense involved. Here are a few examples:
wordpress.com – allows you to register a blog at yourcompany.wordpress.com
blogger.com – register a blog at yourcompany.blogspot.com
About us – get a page at http://www.aboutus.org/yourcompany.com
Facebook – get a Facebook page like facebook.com/yourcompany
MySpace – just like Facebook your company can have a presence on MySpace at myspace.com/yourcompany
Twitter – Google loves to rank Twitter pages like twitter.com/yourcompany
There’s literally hundreds more places like this you can setup profiles for your company and because these sites are large and well trusted by the search engines there’s a good chance they’ll start ranking for searches on your brand name. Once you’ve set these pages up link to them from your main website and anywhere else you can, this will help these pages to rise in Google results.
Sub domains are another powerful way to occupy more of the first page of Google results. While Google will usually only rank 2 pages from www.yourcompany.com on the same page of results they will rank additional pages on a sub domain like http://blog.yourcompany.com. Therefore hosting content across a number of sub domains is a useful way to close out other listings from Google results.
Promoting positive publicity
Chances are you’ll have your fair share of positive publicity and reviews as well as the occasional bit of negative press so identify where your strongest online endorsements are located and link to them from your website, blog and anywhere else you can add links. Maybe you’ve got mentions in a news or media site or a blogger has given you a positive review. Often over time these stories will get buried in the sites news archives and eventually they can stop showing in Google search results. By linking to these pages you’ll help Google to see that those pages are still there and that they’re still relevant, as such they’ll be more likely to rank these pages for searches on your brand name.
In the past managing your brands reputation in search results was relatively easy as the search engines would only show results from normal webpage’s. Using the techniques explained in the previous section promoting your own pages in order to suppress negative publicity is relatively easy. Nowadays however Google will return results from other places besides web pages in its search results. Google news is one example of this.
Referring back to the Nike example we looked at earlier, although Nike have successfully dominated the first page of Google results with their multiple webpage’s the embedded Google news box on the results page returns a potentially damaging story.
When a negative news story breaks about your company it is likely this news will show up first in these news boxes. Controlling Google news results is difficult because the content is very dynamic so you’ll have to act fast, once a stories been published by a Google news publisher like a newspaper or news website it will start showing in Google news results almost instantly. The only way to suppress these news stories is to get some positive publicity published in Google news after the negative story, that way pushing the bad press down more quickly.
Online press release distribution sites like PRweb and the Press Dispensary can get your content published in Google news and you can pay a premium for a quick turnaround. You’ll need to keep a press release to hand or come up with something press release worthy pretty quickly! Make sure you include your company name in the headline of the release to ensure it gets displayed in the Google news embed box on Google search results for your company.
Image search results
In addition to news stories Google search result pages will often include a box of images from Google image search as shown in the results for coca cola below:
Because of the extra visual impact of images in search results, searchers will be drawn to the image results on a search page and if an image portrays your company in a negative light that is the image which is going to stick in the searchers mind. Which image in the following block catches your eye on a search for McDonalds?
It’s the nature of the internet that negative images will more often be clicked on and linked to between websites meaning negative images do have a habit of showing up near the top in Google image results.
In order to suppress these images you need to make sure that images on your own website and on any other blogs and pages you have on other sites are well optimised.
Include some good quality high-resolution images of your business premises, products, staff or logos on your site. Use your brand name in the ‘alt text’ of the images and link to full size versions of the images. As with normal search results Google is likely to display images from a number of different websites rather than multiple images from the same site so ensure you have plenty of well optimised images on each site, blog and page you own, not just your own website.
As with images, Google will often embed video results from sites like YouTube in normal search results pages.
And again just like with images, a negative video about your brand is more likely to attract publicity than a positive video and as a result rise to the top of YouTube’s own ranking system, therefore making it likely to show in normal search results pages like the video below which reportedly cost United Airlines $180 million off their share price.
The second battlefield: Social sites & discussion forums
While the steps above can help you to deal with the damaging effects of negative publicity being displayed in Google results for searches on your brand, controlling the spread of negative publicity across the web via social media sites is a far greater challenge.
The best strategy for dealing with your reputation in social media is to monitor conversations and be prepared to respond where necessary. Reputation monitoring tools will tell you where your brand is being discussed and you can choose to respond to any criticism or not on a case-by-case basis. The golden rule here is do not interject in the conversation when an allegation against your company is wholly unfounded, as this will only add gravitas to the story.
Similarly resist the temptation to deny negative press which is true, instead attempt to address the concerns of the participants in the discussion and demonstrate where possible what you have done to address the issue.
Below we’ll run through the most common type of social sites and places where your brand may be discussed online and look at the best way to deal with negative comments when they arise.
Review sites like Trip Advisor and the Review Centre allow an ‘owners reply’ to reviews of your business. It is good practice to respond to negative reviews to show other readers that you take the issues seriously and are working to address them.
Forums and Reputation Management
In forums the best way to interject is to simply register at the forum, using an official email address @yourcompany.com and reply to the thread stating that you are an official representative from the company in question. Although you can expect to get some ill feeling from other participants a well moderated forum (some are, most aren’t) will give the chance for your reply to be heard.
This thread about the travel company GAP adventures shows an interesting example of how these discussions can pan out on a forum.
Twitter and Reputation Management
Negative press can spread very quickly on Twitter because of the ‘retweet’ system where one user may ‘tweet’ something negative about your company to their friends and other users will ’retweet’ it meaning it is broadcast to all of their friends as well. The best way to respond to negative comments on Twitter is to backtrack to the original source of the first Tweet and reply to it. Your response can only be 140 characters meaning you’ll need to be succinct and get the message across. Some companies will pass negative tweets to customer services who will contact the complainant.
Argos does a good job of this on their Twitter profile.
Facebook’s distribution system works in a similar way to Tweeting and Retweeting on Twitter. If someone posts a negative comment to their friends in their Facebook status update other users can comment on it or ‘like’ it. Either of these actions sets off a chain reaction where the story may then show in the news feeds of friends of the people who have commented or liked the original posting. The issues with Facebook is you may not be able to reply to or even see the story unless you are friends with the complainant due to Facebook’s privacy controls. One positive however is that most people join Facebook using their real names, meaning if its an existing or past customer you should be able to track down their contact details and get in touch with them via email or phone.
Bloggers can have a powerful negative impact on your brand as the views of even a small blogger with few readers can potentially go ‘viral’ and be distributed to a large number of people in a short space of time through social sharing and voting sites like Digg, Stumbleupon and Reddit. Stories that pick up momentum on these sites are also likely to get picked up by more influential bloggers or even the mainstream press.
You can reply directly to most bloggers through comments on their post (where comments are enabled) however for serious allegations it is often better to attempt to make private contact with the blogger first before replying publically in the post comments. Most bloggers will have some way to contact them on their site, usually either a contact form or email address. Failing this you may be able to find an email for them by searching the whois database- although the email address details on whois are not always accurate.
Protecting your brand name online
Your brand name is your identity online; if people see something posted online under your brand name they will naturally assume you are responsible for it. However there are several ways competitors or individuals can slur your brand by creating online identities which appear to be operated by your organisation.
Typosquatting (sometimes referred to as URL hijacking) refers to the practice of squatting on a domain name which is very similar to the official website of a well-known brand which is commonly misspelt. For example a typosquatter may try to buy a domain like yahooo.com to capture traffic when people mistype the yahoo.com domain name in their address bars.
As so many web users now access sites through Google searches rather than ever typing a domain name into their address bar typosquatting is talked about less than it used to be and is now less lucrative however it still goes on and it can portray a negative impression of your brand as in some cases visitors will not realise they are not on the official site.
The best strategy for dealing with typosquatting is to register as many possible mistyped variations of your web address and brand name as possible and redirect all those domains to your real web address. You can get ideas for mistyped domains using a tool like this.
Social media squatting
Social media squatting is becoming more of an issue than traditional typosquatting these days. This happens when a person sets up a fake profile on a social media site claiming to be a representative of your company. For example if you’re Nike they might register an account at twitter.com/nike and as it’s an official looking username many will assume this is the official Nike Twitter account. As social media usernames are usually allocated on a first come first serve basis and are free of charge it can be easy for squatters to move in on your brand name when a new social site is launched.
The best way to prevent this activity and protect your brand on social sites it to register as many profiles with your brand as the username as possible. A service called KnowEm will register an account for you on most of the major social sites for a fee.
You should also be aware of social profile squatters occupying usernames of any high profile individuals within your organisation such as company spokespeople or CEO’s. This sort of activity often goes un-noticed until the squatter posts something malicious and it is attributed back to your organisation.
Phishing is where a criminal attempts to elicit personal details from your customers under the guise of communications, usually emails, which appear to come from your organisation. This practice I most rife in the banking sector as criminals try to get hold of valuable internet banking login details however any site which requires a login or customer data to be entered can have its customers become the victim of phishing scams.
The best approach to dealing with Phishing is by communicating with your customers how they can identify an official email from your organisation. For example
· The email will come from an official company address.
· The email will be addressed to their full name
· The last 4 digits of your account number will be included in the email
If you use online banking yourself your bank are probably already doing this so look out for emails from them for ideas of how you can make your communications more secure and prevent phishing.
An example of a phishing email
Online Reputation Management Summary
Online reputation management is a wide and potentially complex area of marketing. Clearly the larger your brand the more likely you are to attract online conversations which need to be monitored and managed. However business owners at all levels need to be aware of the risks, and the options for dealing with them.
I hope this guide has given you some practical tips for running your own online reputation management campaigns. If you have questions or comments I would love to hear from you, add a comment below and I’ll get back to you.