What is Online Reputation Management?

Here’s something that comes up in executive meetings all the time: “Why are people saying bad things about us on the Internet, and what can we do about it?”

This can be especially troubling to the CEO who founded the company and who has spent long years working hard to build the brand. He wakes up one day and finds defamatory remarks online about his company—not constructive criticism, but outrageous accusations and almost slanderous comments.

Worse, the negative reviews are on websites that rank high on search engine results pages, so that anyone doing a search on the company will see them. And it’s not just one negative review website, but several, causing the company’s online reputation to suffer.

As an executive, you need to be aware of your online reputation and know that you can take steps to manage it. You shouldn’t just leave it up to fate, or simply hope that people won’t post negative comments about your company. Your online reputation can have a dramatic effect on not only your brand perception, but also your company’s revenues.

A couple of years ago I met with a company that had a severe online reputation problem. When potential customers searched their company name, seven out of the top 10 Google rankings were negative. After a careful review of their rankings, and prior-year revenues, I determined that they were probably losing more than $1.5 million a year in sales due to negative search engine results. The company confirmed the fact that my estimates were indeed accurate—but low.

All companies face a unique challenge in protecting their online reputation. And because your success or failure depends on how potential customers perceive you, I want to cover the basics of managing and improving your online reputation.

1) What we mean by “online reputation”

Your online reputation is determined by the top Google rankings a prospect sees when they do a search on your company name. A prospect can quickly glance down the page of results and look for anything of interest that pops out at them. If a lot of those websites have negative reviews and complaints about your company, it will automatically diminish your reputation in their eyes. But if they see a list of websites with positive comments and testimonials, they’re more likely to sign up without further hesitation.

Because most people rarely look past the first page or two of search engine results, your online reputation is determined by the top 10 or 20 search results.

2) Where negative postings come from

Some websites specialize in letting anyone post a complaint. That makes it extremely easy for a dissatisfied customer to go online and share his or her experience with the world. And the complaint will still appear years later, even if it was a customer service issue that was quickly handled.

Most review websites will pretty much accept postings from anyone. However, they rarely check for accuracy and are not likely to remove a posting if you request it.

These websites also tend to rank high in the search engines, so if your company is named in a complaint on one of these websites, expect it to show up on a search about you.

3) How a few complaints can hurt your online reputation

You might think that if you have thousands of happy customers, a few online complaints shouldn’t matter. But the math doesn’t work out that way.

Consider that a Google search returns 10 results on the first page. If just three of those are websites with complaints or criticisms, it means nearly a third of the search results are for negative websites. They may still be in the minority, but when a curious prospect sees a link that promises to reveal the “dirt” on a company, it’s hard to resist clicking through. After all, isn’t that what you’d do?

Even one negative review can have an impact if it shows up near the top of the page. Sometimes a single complaint, valid or not, is enough to scare away a prospect.

I know this sounds dire, but basic human psychology is at work here. All it takes is one negative review to give them a reason to say no to the opportunity.

4) What it takes to have a good online reputation

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage your online reputation so you are not at the mercy of your company’s critics. Start out right by following these three steps:

Step No. 1: Accept the fact of online reviews.

Short of outright slander or libel by the reviewers online, you really don’t have much legal recourse to make the negative postings go away. People have a right to complain, and these days it’s all too easy for unhappy customers to vent their frustrations and share their opinions with the whole world.

When you see a negative review about your company the instinctive reaction is to post a response to set the record straight. I understand the human need to respond, but you have to consider Google’s point of view. Here’s why.
Search engines rank various websites high for a few reasons, one of which is relevant content, especially when that content is updated on a regular basis.

When you post a comment on a website, you are in effect giving it new content. And if you get into a back-and-forth discussion with someone on a review website about your company, Google thinks “Ah, there’s a lot about this company here, so we’ll rank this website high for searches on their company name.”

Now when someone does a search on your company, they are even more likely to see the negative review. You want to avoid that. In fact, you want the websites with negative comments to slip further down the Google rankings so they don’t appear on the first page or two of a search. The next two steps help you with that.

Step No. 2: Focus on getting positive content.

A major part of online reputation management involves pushing the negative websites off of the first page or two of a Google search. How? By posting positive content and getting those pages to rank higher than the negative websites.

You need to direct your marketing or PR department to make online reputation management part of their regular duties. That means they should always be looking for, gathering or creating positive content that can be used to continually update your websites. Don’t put everything onto one corporate website. Instead, set up different websites for different purposes.

For example, you can have a website for new distributors, a website about your charitable giving, a website about conferences and meetings, a website for photos and perhaps individual product line websites. This gives you a nice stable of websites that you have control over.

Step No. 3: Push positive websites higher.

In the online world, your reputation is all about who owns the top-ranking results in a search for your company name. You want that space to belong to you—or at least be shared only with websites that have good things to say about you.

If you can do that, then the negative websites will be pushed off the first page of a Google search. And since very few people look past the first page of a search, those negative websites may as well not exist.

The best way to accomplish this is by performing search engine optimization on the positive websites to make them rank higher. Carefully review your websites’ content and the meta title tags to be sure they contain your company name. And most important, you’ll need to create plenty of back links to your positive websites so they are seen as more popular by Google. The magic of ranking higher in Google is relevant content and gathering a substantial number of links from other websites that point to your websites. These links are anchored by your company name.

The goal of getting all the positive websites to rank higher than the negative websites can be a hard one to reach. But considering how important your online reputation is, achieving this goal is well worth the effort. This is not always easy, and it can take many months of steady effort to achieve. Still, consider that the alternative is to let the complaints and negative reviews dominate the search results and trash your online reputation.

Of course, there are even more details to managing your online reputation, but the above steps give you the basic outline of what needs to be done. Just keep in mind that these days your company’s online reputation is one of the most important factors in determining its success.

When customers perform a search for your company, what do they see in the first page of the search engine results? Chances are, if you’ve been around for a while, a Google search will include websites with negative comments, reviews or blogs.

The Most Effective Way to Boost Your Online Reputation

The most effective Online Reputation Management strategy is to get positive websites about your company to rank high, which pushes everyone else down in the rankings — ideally out of the top 20 search engine results. Easier said than done, of course. But this strategy has three distinct advantages:

1) You don’t have to confront the owners of the negative sites, who may or may not be cooperative in removing the comments or forum posts.

2) You are in control of your efforts to rank the positive sites, and are no longer at the whims of complainers, critics, or disapproving reviewers who post their opinions online.

3) It’s completely fair. You’re not forcing anyone to change their content, whether through begging, arm-twisting or legal threats. You’re simply helping those who search on you to see the good side of your company.

Imagine the effect on your online reputation when an online search produces a page full of websites containing only positive reviews, complimentary articles and glowing testimonials. You’ll project a much better image to everyone who finds you through Google.

The way to make sure the positive sites rank higher with the search engines is to perform search engine optimization (SEO). Today, Search Engine Optimization is a combination of including relevant content on your web pages and getting other websites to link to those pages.

You see, Google and other search engines gauge the relevance of a web page based on how many other websites link to it. The more “backlinks” you have to your website, the more likely it is that your website deserves to be ranked higher.

So far, so good. But we still need to push all those negative sites out of the higher rankings, which means we need other sites to take their places. To accomplish this, we find or create websites that contain positive or neutral information about your company and perform SEO to get them to rank higher.

And once the top ten spots of a search are wiped clean of any negative sites, we go to work on the next ten spots.

The goal is to eventually give you two search results pages of positive sites. This is a necessary cushion, because a negative site’s ranking could move up or down by a few spots over time. By “owning” the first two pages, you make it more likely that a negative site can’t suddenly pop up on Page 1 of a search.

Online Reputation Management vs. Traditional Public Relations

How does Online Reputation Management fit into your overall PR strategy? In short, it’s part of PR, and a very crucial one in today’s online world.

Much of public relations concerns managing your reputation, whether it’s publicizing good news about your company or responding to criticism. No doubt you’d prefer that the public only heard positive comments and was not exposed to anything critical about you.

That’s what we aim for with Online Reputation Management, only we focus on what people see about you when performing an online search. And since that’s the way more and more potential customers, sales people, and journalists learn about you these days, managing your image on the search engine results pages becomes a very important part of PR.

The Bottom Line

Negative websites, articles, forum posts and other comments are hurting your brand and costing your company money in terms of lost sales and revenue.

You can either let your reputation and sales suffer, or you can manage your online reputation just as you manage everything else in your company — taking steps to get the results you want and keep your company on track for success.

Online Reputation Management is the key to making that happen.

Online Reputation Management Articles featuring Don Sorensen and Big Blue Robot:

Forbes: 9 Online Reputation Management Services Entrepreneurs Can Achieve By Themselves

Forbes: Top Online Reputation Management Tips for Brand Marketers

Huffington Post: Is Online Reputation Management Dead?

CNN Money:  Which social network is best for your business?

USA Today: Digital tools play big role in small business growth

The New York Times: Erasing the Digital Past