How Your Customers Can Help Improve Your Online Reputation

Most of my clients come to me when they need their online reputation improved. And this is usually because of some negative articles or blog posts that show up on a search for the company.

I’m happy to help solve their problem, but it would be better if it never got to this point in the first place. Online reputation management shouldn’t always be about fixing things. Instead, it should be part of your whole PR strategy.

Case in point. I met with a client that was concerned about a negative article, which kept ranking at number 3 on a search even after four years. Needless to say, that was putting a dent in their online reputation. I told them the way to handle this was to get a lot more positive content out there and get that to rank higher, pushing the negative article off of page one of the search engine results.

Basic reputation management strategy, right? Well, unfortunately they didn’t have other content or positive reviews, because gathering this kind of content wasn’t part of their ongoing PR process. Here’s why it should be part of your PR strategy, and how it will significantly help in managing your online reputation.

Consider that the best thing you can have is a loyal base of satisfied customers who would willingly write and post positive reviews about your company. But you don’t get this without first building a relationship with them.

A simple way to start building a relationship -- and gather content -- is with a survey. After a customer has bought from you, ask them to answer a few questions about their experience with you, giving them an opportunity to offer feedback. As part of the survey, have them write a brief review of their experience and include a checkbox where they agree to let you use what they say in your marketing efforts.

Not everyone will fill in the survey, not everyone will write a review, and not everyone will let you use their written review for marketing purposes. It’s a numbers game -- ask enough people and you’ll get some responses.

Now what? When you get a positive review from a customer, you can say “We love the review you gave us. If you’d be so kind as to post a similar review on such-and-such website, we’d really appreciate it -- and you’ll be helping other people who are looking for what we offer.” Then direct them to one of the review websites that cover your industry and tend to rank high.

Again, not everyone will do this, but if even just a few people a month post positive reviews on other websites, that can make a big difference in your online reputation. But remember, customers will only go out of their way for you if you have good relationships with them.

Creating good customer relationships is an ongoing process, and something every company should think about from day one. Do what you can to build and maintain these relationships, because your customers can be your best allies in helping you improve your online reputation.

Just What Do We Mean By “Online Reputation”?

Occasionally I like to get back to basics here and cover some topics or nomenclature that may be unfamiliar to people who aren’t in this business. As I educate my customers on the importance of Online Reputation Management, I often first have to explain the term “online reputation.”

As you know, your reputation is based on what others say about you. That’s what makes it a reputation and not marketing, which comes from the company.

Your customers share their views or opinions about you with others, based on their experience, so people who haven’t done business with you directly now have some estimation of your company. Your reputation precedes you, as they say.

That was all very well and good back in the old days where word of mouth actually took place in person and reviews in the newspaper were often carefully-placed PR pieces. It took some effort for someone to find out what kind of “rating” you had with any particular agency or consumer protection group.

Nowadays, everything about you can be found with a quick search online. And therein lies your online reputation.

Just what are people saying about your company in chat rooms, blog posts, and review sites? What views are generally held about you in all these online forums?

All those thoughts and opinions broadcast to the world create the perception that a new customer has of you. More specifically, the various websites that rank high in a Google search are mainly the ones that shape someone’s view of your company, whether or not they’ve done business with you.

Because most people tend to only look at the first two pages of a search, the comments, blogs and review websites that come up on those pages make or break your online reputation.

The main strategy in managing your online reputation is to make sure your customers see only positive reviews and comments when they do a search. When a lot of third parties write recommendations about you, all those testimonials create a powerful social influence that few prospects can resist.

And be aware that you can’t boost your online reputation by posting more press releases on your company website. People easily see through corporate PR tactics.

A positive online reputation means that a lot of other people are saying good things about you.

What Will Google Do Next?

I’m sometimes asked -- and sometimes ask myself -- What changes will Google make and when will it happen? If you care at all about your website’s ranking in a Google search, as you should, this is an important concern.

Every time Google or any major search engine decides to change their search criteria, many websites are affected. You might be sitting pretty at the top of page 1 of a Google search one day, then find your site far down in the rankings the next day.

This becomes one of those earth-shattering events that reverberates around the globe. It often makes the headlines, and the blogosphere erupts into an outcry of despair. Some smaller companies that depend completely on Internet sales can see their sales plummet if their sites are suddenly ranked lower.

So all of us in this business want to know when the next change will come and what it will be.

Well, it would be great if Google just told everyone in advance how they’re going to change their searching algorithm so we can make adjustments. But, like an earthquake, it’s just one of those “natural disasters” you can’t exactly predict (though we sometimes hear rumors of an impending change).

So the answer to the question above is, nobody knows. Google keeps a pretty tight lid on any information regarding its algorithms.

Sure, we all try to anticipate the search engine changes by following the trends. I look at search metrics about my clients’ websites every day. I talk to others in the search engine optimization and online reputation management business, and we discuss what’s working and what’s not. And if any major changes happen, we can adjust quickly.

What’s still working right now is having a lot of good, relevant and frequently-updated content on your website, and having plenty of legitimate backlinks to your site. No surprise there.

And keep in mind that the search engines often make changes to their algorithms to “punish” those who have achieved high rankings through trickery or devious means, such as cramming  a website full of targeted words that are invisible to the visitor, but that can be picked up by the search engines.

Since I don’t use or advocate these kinds of dishonest techniques for my clients, I’m not too worried that the next big search engine change will have any devastating effect on their website rankings. But I still keep a close eye on what Google is up to.

When Being Number One Isn’t So Great

Who wouldn’t like to have their website rank in the number one spot of a Google search? It makes you feel like you’re top dog ... king of the hill ... master of all you survey. But there’s a catch, and success can come with a price.

You see, if you’re ranking for the wrong keyword, then who cares if you’re number one? Your customers aren’t likely to find you anyway, because they’ll be searching on some other words or phrases. So it does nothing for your reputation to rank at the top of the page for a keyword no one is going to search on.

But here’s what can really burst your balloon and sense of accomplishment...

You’re number one, but all the other sites listed below yours are authoritative websites that mention your company or products in a negative light. Or worse, these websites claim to expose scams, rip-offs, and con artists -- and there you are, being slammed by some reviewer who feels it’s his civic duty to warn the world about you.

I see it all the time, usually when a client first approaches me about reputation management. The client’s website is number one all right, but the search engine results page is full of sites containing negative reviews or even slanderous comments about the company. To a potential customer looking for objective information, the results page seems to suggest that all the world is against this company.

And if the next few pages contain lots of positive comments about the company? Well, not many people get past the first page, as we all know.

So your number one spot of that search result might give you some bragging rights, but it may not help your business much.

The goal, then, of online reputation management isn’t just to have your main website rank high. It’s to make sure that as many negative sites as possible get pushed off the first page. Ideally, all a potential customer would see are positive sites about your company.

In that case, having the number one spot of a Google search would be about the best thing in the world.

This Can Happen to Anyone

What do you do if you’re a Reputation Management company that gets slammed with a bunch of negative reviews online?

Well, that’s what happened not too long ago to several companies in this business, myself included. Somebody had posted negative comments and reviews targeting reputation management companies, and those websites started showing up on the search engine result pages.

But it was an obvious ploy by some individual with a grudge -- or maybe he was just testing us. You see, all the postings were nearly identical, and it was clear he had just copied and pasted the same comments, only changing the company names. And no, I don’t think the comments had any merit.

So the lesson is that this can happen to anyone -- you just have to take it in stride.

I know I keep harping on this, but managing your reputation is an ongoing effort. Think of the story of the race between the turtle and the hare.

The turtle keeps plugging away, doing a little every day or every week to make sure that potential customers find only good reviews or positive comments when they do a search online. But every once in a while the hare passes him.

Some negative reviewer feels the need to blow off a little steam, or maybe the competition has hired someone to post negative comments, so these comments and reviews pop up on the first page of a Google search. But these people aren’t in it for the long haul like you are.

Eventually they lose interest and go on to other things -- or, like the hare, get a little too confident or lazy -- while you keep up the steady efforts of managing your online reputation, steadily progressing forward like the diligent turtle. The positive web pages about your company keep ranking higher and higher, and everyone else gets pushed off the first page or two of the search engines.

Remember that the turtle wins the race -- because diligence and persistence are the most powerful and successful strategies in all aspects of business and life.

How a Few Complaints Can Hurt Your Online Reputation

Nearly every business is going to have an unhappy customer from time to time. Often, it’s a complaint that’s easily fixed with a quick refund, a replacement item, or better customer service.

Still, you can’t please everyone. And nowadays it’s too easy for a dissatisfied person -- or a competitor -- to post complaints and accuse your company of being a scam or worse.

Trouble is, for every ten thousand happy customers who don’t post positive comments about you, there’s one unhappy customer who posts negative comments. So when your potential customers do an online search, all they may see will be those negative postings.

It only takes a few complaints to start showing up on the search engine results pages for your online reputation to suffer.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if every happy customer posted a postive comment or compliment about you online? Sure. And that will happen when pigs fly, hell freezes over, and we all live together in peace and harmony. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

Satisfied customers have no need or little incentive to spend time posting good reviews or comments about you.

And you may feel it’s beneath your dignity to actually suggest they do this. But it often doesn’t hurt to ask, and your loyal customers may be happy to spend the time online recounting their pleasant experiences with your company.

Try to identify those customers who have nothing to complain about and who have been with you a while. Then politely suggest that, if they are happy with your products or services, they go to such-and-such website or forum and mention their positive experience with you.

The more you can do this, the better your online reputation will be.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, I understand. It’s not easy asking for compliments outright. This is why I make sure good reviews get posted about my clients, which is a key strategy in reputation management.

We just don’t want to let those few complainers overshadow all the good things about your company.

Can a Negative Online Reputation Kill a Company?

How dependent is your company on online marketing or online sales? And how dependent are you on having potential customers find you through an online search?

I know of many companies that get more than half their revenue from online sales. So if their online reputation suffers, their sales can take a dive. And for a company too dependent on online sales, a negative online reputation can sometimes kill their business.

Now, I’m not trying to get you to change your business model. The reality today is that many of us do the bulk of our business online. And we all have to weather storms from time to time, including recessions, changes in the marketplace, loss of a good customer, and yes, damage to our online reputation.

This typically happens because disgruntled, dissatisfied, or unhappy people are posting negative comments on review sites -- and because those review sites are suddenly ranking higher in the search engines. So your site may be number one for a keyword search, but the negative sites fill up spots two through ten.

It’s never fun to look at the first page of a Google search and see your company’s products or services mentioned on websites with words like “scam” or “rip-off” in their names. It’s like waking up one morning realizing you’ve got a bad case of the flu and will have to suffer through it.

How do you deal with it?

First, good customer service is critical. Don’t make an unhappy customer wait for a response to their complaint. Handle it quickly. The longer they have to wait, the more upset they’ll get, which makes it more likely they’ll go online to the review sites and start posting their “story” about how badly they were treated.

Second, if your online reputation is crucial to your business, then managing that reputation should be a high priority. But it’s not something you do as a reaction to a sudden drop in your rankings or the appearance of negative sites. That’s why it’s called “reputation management,” not “reputation let’s-panic-and-do-something-quickly.” If things get really bad you may need to consider the services of business lawyers in ocean city to help smooth things over.

It’s an ongoing process that makes sure your customers see good things about you online and are less likely to see any negative posts or comments.

Finally, make sure you can weather the occasional dip in your online ranking or a blow to your online image -- whether that means diversifying your sales and marketing model or keeping enough cash on hand to cover a temporary loss of business.

These things happen even to the best of companies, no matter how much you do to please everyone. Being prepared is the best defense.

What to do About Negative Posts on Forums

If you participate in online forums, you may see a negative posting about your company. In fact, some forum participants can get downright nasty, even saying things that are completely untrue.

Now, since you’re sitting right there at the keyboard while reading these posts, your first reaction may be to shoot off a response to set the record straight and protect your online reputation -- and possibly get into a back-and-forth “discussion” that can quickly turn into the online equivalent of mud wrestling.

Before you respond to the forum posting, stop and consider this.

First, are you really going to change anyone’s mind with your rebuttal? If it’s a site where people just come to complain, or if it’s a forum participant who simply gets joy out of bashing others online, chances are there’s nothing that can get these people to change -- expect maybe a few years of therapy.

And if it’s a competitor writing these posts, you’re not going to win them over to your side no matter what. They don’t care about your online reputation.

Second, every time you or anyone posts to one of these sites, you’re just improving their search engine ranking. Why? Because you’re giving the site new content, and the search engines tend to rank sites higher that have constantly updated content.

In other words, posting your rebuttal on that particular website actually helps the negative posts gain more visibility. That makes it more likely that a potential customer will find the site, read the negative comments, and decide not to do business with you. Like scoring an “own goal” in soccer,  you’ve only helped the other side by responding to a negative forum post, which is not good reputation management strategy.

So what can you do?

Well, you can grumble a little, complain to your co-workers, kick the garbage can, and curse these poor souls who would dare to malign your wonderful products and services. Then take a breath and relax. There are better and more subtle ways to fight back.

This generally involves getting positive sites about your company to rank higher so the negative sites are pushed further down in the search engine rankings, where fewer people will see them.

Just keep in mind that a long-term strategy to boost your company’s online image is better than direct confrontation -- no matter how mad you may feel about the negative postings. This is what true online reputation management is all about.

Reputation Management News

Online Reputation has a Dramatic Effect on Revenue

Recently a company asked for my expertise to help improve their online reputation. When potential customers searched on their company name, seven out of the top ten search engine rankings were negative. After careful review of their rankings, and prior year revenues, I determined that they were probably losing over $1,500,000 a year in sales due to negative search engine results. The company confirmed the fact that my estimates were indeed accurate — but low.

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