Do College Students Need to Worry About Their Online Reputation?

It’s back-to-school time, which got me thinking about an issue that’s becoming more of a concern as the years go on — what employers are finding online about college-aged job seekers.

I doubt that any students are reading this blog, but if you know of any you might want to pass this article on to them so I can talk to them directly (and if you’re their parent, they probably won’t listen to you anyway).

Do college students need to worry about their online reputation? Well, not all employers will perform a Google search when hiring, but enough do nowadays to make it a concern of anyone looking for a job. And since you’ll soon be starting on a professional career, it would be wise to consider the image you present online.

I’m not talking about posting embarrassing pictures of yourself on Facebook, since those shouldn’t show up on a Google search (unless Facebook once again changes its privacy settings). YouTube videos are another matter, and if you’ve posted something that shows you in a less-than-professional light, you may want to consider taking it down.

Now, what will a prospective employer find when they do a search on your name? Is there anything they would see that says “Here’s a person worthy of hiring”? If not, it’s time to start building an online image so that the first page of a Google search is full of websites that paint a positive picture of you, both as a person and a potential employee.

Here are some ideas to consider:

1) Online Forums

Post to online forums in your field. By the time you reach your senior year you should be knowledgeable enough to participate in discussions about your field of study, even if it’s merely to ask intelligent questions. And keep it courteous — no personal attacks or complaining. Show yourself to be a thoughtful, informed participant.

And don’t use a clever pseudonym like “webhacker347”. Use your name — the one someone will enter in a search engine. You’re in the professional world now, so no more hiding behind an online handle.

2) Published Papers

If you’ve published a paper with your professors, find where it is online and start creating links to that page. Put a link to the paper on your Facebook page, and get as many people as you know to do likewise.

This will help boost it in the rankings, as long as the anchor text for the links includes your name. That is, the link someone clicks on to go to the website should be your name and the title of the paper, not the name of the website. This way, Google will know that the page should rank higher under a search for your name.

3) Blogs

Create a professional blog about your field of interest. This would be separate from the blog you now have about college life, partying, your family and friends, weird things you like, or anything else you’ve been sharing with the world. It could be a simple as observations about what’s going on in the industry, or what you’ve learned about the history of your field.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an electrical engineer or a classical literature major, you can find something to write about. One idea is to sign up for Google Alerts to get daily or weekly news articles about some aspect of your field that interests you. Read the articles, then simply write a synopsis or your own observations about what’s happening. That shows an employer you’re keeping up to date on the latest developments in the industry.

Again, your name needs to be associated with the blog so that it shows up near the top of a search for your name.

4) Your Own Website

If you don’t own the domain name, it may be too late, since someone else with the same name as yours may have already taken it. But go register something as close as you can, perhaps including your middle initial or full name. And go for the .com version, rather than .info or .name.

You may already have a website through the university, where the URL is something like It’s time to get your own site where you own the domain name and can choose where you want it hosted.

What do you put on your site? Whatever you want a prospective employer to see. A brief bio, your interests, your resume, a link to your blog and other online info about you. And think of this as a site you’ll be continually updating over the years. Someday you’ll be looking for another job, and your next employer will do a search on you. Let them find a website that makes a good impression on them.

5) LinkedIn

By the time you graduate, you should have a LinkedIn account. Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn pages show up on Google searches. This is where professionals post information and make contact with others in their field, so keep this info up to date.

I know there are thousands of ways to participate in the online world and get your name out there. Trouble is, you don’t always have control over how your name is associated with these sites or how well they rank on a search for your name. The ideas above are the most straightforward ways to build a positive online reputation, and which give you at least some control over the content and search engine ranking.

The advantage of doing all this is that as these sites start to rank higher, they will push anything else about you off of the first page or two of a Google search. That makes it less likely that a prospective employer will see those embarrassing party videos of you that someone posted, and which you’d like to bury.

You don’t have to do this all at once. Just do a little bit each week or each month and keep checking the search engine results to see how your pages are ranking. Before you know it, you’ll have established a presence online that shows you to be a person someone would want to hire.

Don’t Be Afraid of Talking to Your Customers

I’ve written previously about the importance of getting positive feedback from your customers to use on your websites. The more fresh content you can post, the more likely it is you’ll rank higher in the search engines, and the better your online reputation will be.

But I’ve found that some companies are afraid to talk to their customers. Once these companies start to get a bad reputation online — that is, negative reviews and complaints — they just assume everyone hates them, including their customers.

They’re afraid of hearing more bad news, so they don’t even bother asking for feedback from customers who may well be satisfied with everything the company does. That’s a shame.

After all, if you’re afraid of what your customers will say, why are you in business?

Just because a few people complain — or just because someone with a chip on his shoulder posts a rant about your company — it doesn’t mean everyone feels the same way. In fact, the critics tend to be in the minority, and generally only people with a  complaint will take the effort to post something about you. Your satisfied customers have no reason to post a review.

Don’t let a few bad reviews keep you from asking for feedback. Make it a habit to keep in touch with your customers and ask them for comments. In the first place, this is how you keep improving your products and services. In the second place, this is an excellent way to elicit positive reviews that you can use in your marketing.

You can use the positive comments as content in the websites that you’re trying to rank high in the search engines, assuming you get permission from the customers who wrote them.

You can even create a website dedicated to positive testimonials from your happy customers. Imagine the impact that will have on anyone doing a search on you when that pops up on the first page of the results. That’s a great way to boost your online reputation — and it will encourage you to ask even more customers for their feedback.

Online Reputation Management is a Real Estate Game

You’re no doubt familiar with the game Monopoly. You go around the board trying to acquire as many properties as you can so you can start putting up houses and hotels.

If you own a lot of properties, you can collect more rent and get ahead. If the other players have more properties than you, you suffer every time you go around the board, because the rent you pay out is more than the amount you collect.

An ideal situation is where you own nearly an entire side of the board, because it’s less likely that anyone will skip over your properties by a lucky throw of the dice.

Now think about when someone searches for your company name in Google. A page of search results pops up. The question is, who owns this “real estate”?

If there are too many websites with negative reviews on this page, they can discourage people from buying from you. That’s potential revenue you’re not getting, which in Monopoly terms is like rent going to someone else.

Your goal is to own all the top ten spots on a Google search. The only sites that show up here should be either your company’s websites or sites that have good things to say about you. That’s the “monopoly” you want to have, because now no matter which website a prospect clicks on they’ll have a positive impression of your company.

Fortunately, there’s no law against having this particular type of monopoly!

Who is your competition for this space? More often than not it’s the review sites that post customer complaints and consumer warnings, or bloggers posting criticisms about one thing or another. These tend to rank high in the search engines, so elbowing them off the first page is not always easy.

However, with persistence and a sound strategy there’s a good chance you can eventually own the first page of a search. No guarantees of course. But the more properties (i.e., websites) you have in this space, the better for your company’s online reputation, and the more likely you are to prosper and win the game.

Why the Right “Anchor Text” is Crucial to Your SEO

In the world of search engine optimization, nothing can give you huge seo boost except links to your website from other sites or niche edits. When Google sees all these links, they know your website is worthy of ranking higher in a search. It’s “social proof” that other people find your website valuable.

But there’s a catch …

On all those other websites, each link will have some kind of label. That is, there will be some text that is clickable and which links to your site. This is called “anchor text”, and what it says is crucial to successful SEO.

The trick is making sure the anchor text includes your keyword phrase, and not something vague like “click here.” You want the link to tell readers and the search engines what your site is about.

Let’s look at an example.

Say you sell bronze plaques that are used for signs and awards. If I were building links for your company, I would have those links say “bronze plaques,” “bronze signs,” “award plaques,” “engraved plaques,” or something similar. It would depend on exactly what search phrase we’re trying to rank for. And we may use different terms to link to different pages on your website.

What about your company name? Well, consider that you’re typically trying to rank for a phrase people will search on that has to do with what you sell. Typically, this is not your company name.

Case in point: One client of mine that offers home automation was using their company name as the anchor text in their back links. It was not surprising that they weren’t ranking well for the search term “home automation,” even though that phrase appeared all over their website.

When we changed the text in the back links from the company name to “home automation” they quickly started to rank for that — simply because Google saw that a lot of other websites were acknowledging that the website was indeed about home automation.

The lesson is that the links back to your website should contain relevant search phrases — anchor text in these links should clearly indicate what your site is about, both to users and to the search engines. Taking care of this one little detail can make a world of difference in search engine optimization.

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.

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