What CEOs Need to Know About Protecting Their Company’s Online Reputation

Here’s something that comes up in executive meetings all the time: “Why are people saying bad things about us online 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. You wake up one day and find some defamatory remarks online about your company — not constructive criticism, but outrageous accusations and almost slanderous comments that make your blood boil.

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

As a CEO, 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 luck or the hope that people won’t post negative comments about your company.

Here are three steps to take to manage your company’s online reputation:

Step 1: Accept the fact of online reviews

Short of outright slander or libel by the reviewers or bloggers 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.

You best reaction is to shrug your shoulders and accept them as a fact of life. No sense in letting them get to you — not when you have more important things to occupy your mind. And with a good reputation management strategy in place, you won’t have to concern yourself too much with the complaints and rants of a few bloggers.

Step 2: Focus on getting positive content

Part of online reputation management involves pushing the negative review sites 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 sites.

As CEO, you can 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 (and yes, you should have multiple websites for this reason).

In addition, your customers should be encouraged to post positive comments about you. You might even create a website devoted to positive testimonials from happy customers.

Step 3: Marginalize the negative content

In the online world, your reputation is all about who owns the top 10 or 20 results in a search for your company name. You want that space to belong to you — or at least to be shared only by websites that have good things to say about you.

If you can do that, then all the negative reviews and blog posts will be pushed off the first page or two of a Google search. And since hardly anyone looks past the first two pages of a search, those negative websites may as well not exist.

The most straightforward way to accomplish this is by performing search engine optimization on the websites with positive reviews and comments to make them rank higher.

The goal is to get all the positive sites to rank higher than the negative sites, and it can be a hard one to reach. But considering how important your online reputation is, achieving this goal is well worth the effort.

Of course, there’s a lot more 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.

How to Work with Your Reputation Management Consultant

When working with an online reputation management (ORM) consultant, you want to get the most value for your money. However, you can’t just leave it all up to the company you hired. Yes, they will do everything they can to boost your rankings in the search engines and improve your online reputation. But your company has a role to play as well.

Here are a few tips on what you can do to get the most out of the relationship:

1) Let your ORM consultant know about new online content.

If you post a press release, add some new pages to your website, or create a new site, make sure your reputation management consultant knows about it. For example, if I know that there’s an article about your company on the web, I’ll work on boosting that page’s rankings, even if it’s not on your website (assuming it’s a positive article, of course).

2) Avoid responding to negative reviews in online forums

Before you post anything about your company on another website, consult with your ORM expert first. Your attempt to confront the negative postings can backfire and actually make the situation worse. Often, it’s best to ignore negative posts and focus instead on getting the positive sites to rank higher.

3) Don’t change your website without first telling your ORM consultant

In a previous post, I talked about why it’s not a good idea to overhaul your website without first consulting with your online reputation management or SEO expert. Even changing the address of one major page can affect your rankings.

I typically get backlinks from other websites to specific pages on my clients’ sites to make those pages rank higher. But if you change the address of the page and don’t let me know, I can’t make the adjustment in these links. That’s why it’s best to let your consultant know ahead of time if you’re going to make changes that affect the address of any pages on your site.

4) Come up with ideas for additional websites

For reputation management purposes, having multiple sites is to your advantage. The more sites you control, the more likely it is that you can get them to rank higher and dominate the first page of a Google search. Your ORM consultant can help you with this, but the various teams or departments in your company may be better at coming up with ideas for these additional sites, since they know the business inside and out — and they know what kind of content they can offer and keep up to date.

5) Keep your customers happy

It doesn’t help your online reputation if you have a lot of unhappy customers posting negative reviews online. The biggest complaints I see are usually about over-promising and under-delivering, aggressive sales tactics, slow response to complaints, and poor customer service. Simply improving your customer service and handling complaints quickly can go a long way toward keeping your customers satisfied, which makes it less likely someone will post a bad review about you online.

Managing your online reputation is an ongoing process. Your ORM consultant will be much more successful in improving your online reputation if you’re willing to play an active part in that process.

The Next Trend: Personal Online Reputation Management

I’ve had more requests from individuals to help them with online reputation management in the last few months than I have in the last few years. What’s going on?

First off, businesses are becoming more aware of the need to manage their online reputation. That’s great, because it keeps me busy.

Celebrities have also caught on, and are seeing the need to do something about maintaining a positive image online. It’s bad enough to put up with what the tabloids print. In the online world, things can get even nastier.

Now we’re seeing a trend where ordinary individuals are looking to hire reputation management specialists to burnish their online “brand.”

I’ve addressed the issue of personal online reputation management for executives and college students in other blog posts. In most of these cases, the concern isn’t about handling negative reviews or criticism online, but rather establishing a presence online to build a reputation.

A lot of people are now waking up to the fact that some online information about them may not show them in the best light. Even if the information is absolutely, 100% correct, they still may not want it popping up in a search.

Perhaps they were accused of something (but not convicted), and their names appear in news stories. In these days of trial-by-media, everyone feels entitled to offer their opinion and pronounce a verdict on the scantiest of information. Never mind due process of the law. Public accusations are as good as a guilty verdict in the minds of many.

Typically, only the most sensational or celebrity-related stories get prominently reported in the main media. However, even if a story is buried on page 37 of a newspaper, it can still appear at the top of an online search about the person of interest.

Also, public information that used to take some effort for someone to find is now easily accessible with a quick online search. This includes information about your mortgage, property purchases and sales, bankruptcy, court filings and nearly any public documents about you.

You may also find yourself on lists of donors to charities or political parties. That may not bother you if you still proudly support these organizations. But if your donation was ten years ago and you’ve since changed your views, you may regret being associated with something you no longer believe in.

Not surprisingly, the undesirable content is not always something posted by another person or organization. I was contacted recently on behalf of an actress (somewhat well known, but not a huge star) who was concerned because a search turned up some images of her posing in a bikini in her earlier days. She thought this bit of “youthful indiscretion” was damaging her reputation.

This isn’t the type of client I typically work with, so I turned down the assignment. But it shows where we’re headed.

We have to face a new reality: More and more information about you is finding its way online, and it’s going to stay there a long time. The internet never forgets.

It reminds me of the song “Every Breath You Take” by Sting:

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I’ll be watching you

Your online reputation consists of everything ever posted by you or about you. Every step you take, the world is watching. That’s why it’s easy to predict that online reputation management companies will be approached more and more by individuals who want help with managing what shows up about them in online searches.

How a Bad Online Reputation Can Kill a Brand

What happens when your company’s reputation is so bad you have no other option but to kill the brand? Could it really get to that point? Well, yes, I’ve seen it happen.

Let me lay out a scenario for a company I’ll call Acme Opportunity Group. The company is fictitious but the scenario is all too common.

Acme started out with high hopes. It built a website (but only one), which ranked pretty well. In fact, it ranked right at the top of a Google search for “Acme Opportunity Group.” The company aggressively recruited sales people, who went out and aggressively sold the product.

A few customers complained about one thing or another, but that’s to be expected for any company. It was assumed that Customer Support would handle the issues. Isn’t that their job?

Sometimes Customer Support wasn’t quick enough, or didn’t handle the issue well enough. A few customers went online and wrote their experiences up on a couple of the review websites. Someone who was particularly unhappy claimed the company was a scam, because of its aggressive sales techniques and unwillingness to quickly refund money.

Then those complaint sites started showing up on the first page of the search engine results for Acme. But the company was in high gear and forged ahead. You can’t please everyone, and what’s one or two complaints?

Then a couple of bloggers who didn’t care for Acme’s business model posted a few blogs about the company, casually tossing about phrases like “unethical business practices,” “questionable sales tactics”, and of course “scam.” Since their sites were popular, Google ranked them high on a search for Acme Opportunity Group.

The Marketing department of Acme was concerned that the first page of a search for Acme now had about half negative websites, and Acme’s website had slipped to the number two spot, just below a page from RipoffReport.com. They thought it was a PR issue and told the PR department, who passed the buck to the webmaster, who simply tried tweaking the site with search engine optimization tricks.

No one thought they could do anything about the negative review sites.

Unwittingly, someone from the PR department posted rebuttals on the various sites, which led to a back-and-forth discussion about the merits of the company. Google picked up on the fact that these sites had lots of new relevant content about the company, and duly ranked these negative sites even higher for a search on Acme.

Acme’s president asked why sales were dropping off, and why the company no longer received any prospects online. The marketing and PR people looked at each other, suggested new marketing and PR campaigns, and requested bigger budgets.

By this time, the first page of a Google search contained eight negative websites, and Acme’s webpage was down to number three. A prospect doing a search would get a bad impression of the company without even having to click through any of the links. It was all there in the website names: scam.com, complaintsboard.com, ripoffreport.com.

In the eyes of the public, Acme’s name was mud.

The company decided it had no choice but to kill the brand it had spent so much time and money building. Acme changed its name and started over.

Of course, you can take steps to prevent this kind of thing happening, as Acme could have. That’s the whole point of online reputation management – to keep the first page or two of searches from becoming overrun with negative websites. But it’s better if you start early, because sometimes if a reputation is too damaged, little can be done to repair it.

However, even if things look bad, not all is lost. I had one client with seven negative websites in the top ten search engine results. Over the course of about 15 months we were able to fill the first page of search results with all positive websites.

But if you don’t do anything about it, you may end up like Acme Opportunity Group and have to kill your brand. Don’t let this happen to you.

How Corporate Executives Can Secure a Positive Online Reputation

I typically deal with companies that have to contend with negative reviews and blog posts, and which show up on a Google search about the company. Those negative websites affect their online reputation, so I help to manage the impact they will have.

But what about an individual’s online reputation?

If you’re a corporate executive, you want to make sure that anyone doing a search on you will only get a positive impression. It might be a headhunter, someone you’re interviewing with, or even your current boss who wants to see what the online world has to say about you.

Here’s what I generally find. Unless you’re a public figure or big-name celebrity, you probably won’t have any negative reviews online or a blogger spilling the dirt about you. Instead, there may be very little about you — and that can be nearly as bad as having negative postings about you.

Why? Because a prospective employer wants to know something about you — that you’re knowledgeable about the industry, active in the field, a good citizen — all the stuff you’d put on a resume. If a search on you reveals nothing about your professional activities, they may wonder whether you’re a good candidate.

To manage your online reputation, you first need to get your name out there, making sure it’s associated only with positive content. Here are some ways to do that:

1) Participate in online forums or discussions related to your field. Just remember to keep your posts professional. Avoid personal attacks, complaints about your company, or whining about your job. Constructive criticism about your field is fine, but always consider what a prospective employer would think about what you say — because once it’s posted online, it’s there forever.

2) Having a LinkedIn page is pretty much standard these days for any kind of professional. If you haven’t set one up, do so, and make sure to keep it up to date.

3) If you’re involved in charities or non-profits, see if they have a website page that includes short bios of people who contribute their time and efforts. If you’re on the board of directors of a charity, they should have this information online somewhere, so make sure that information on you is correct and up to date.

Also be aware that if you donate to political organizations, that can show up on a search about you — even if the donation was ten years ago.

4) Your own blog site. This takes a bit more work, and it’s not for everybody. But if you’re knowledgeable about your field, you can set up a blog site relatively easily using a product like WordPress. You’ll naturally make sure to include your name on the site and only write posts you’d want a prospective employer to read.

5) Finally, monitor yourself in the search engines. It’s not vain to Google yourself if you’re concerned about maintaining a good online reputation. Once a month or so should be enough for a regular “checkup” on your online health.

Why You Need Multiple Websites for Good Reputation Management

If you’ve been following these articles, or if you are familiar with online reputation management, you know the main strategy: Find or create web pages with positive content, then get those to rank high. That way, any sites with negative content get pushed off of the first page or two of the search engine results.

Simple and straightforward, though it takes some effort and is not always easy.

One of the biggest issues is how to fill up the first two pages of a Google search with websites that only have good things to say about your company. That’s why your company should have multiple websites where you can control the content.

Sure, we can get your main website to rank at the top position for a search on the company name. But we also need several more separate websites that we can get to rank high. If they already exist, rather than having to create them from scratch, so much the better.

Here are some ideas of other websites you can develop, and which don’t take a lot of effort to build and maintain:

1) Charitable giving. A site devoted to the charities your company supports.

2) Photos. A site with pictures from corporate events, picnics, conferences, or other company activities. But no pictures of drunken Christmas partygoers, please.

3) A blog. While it’s good to have a blog on your main site to keep the content fresh and up to date, you can also have a separate blog about some other aspect of your company’s activities, or about its products or services.

4) Recruiting. If your company hires door-to-door salespeople, or if one of your main efforts involves recruiting people to join your organization, you would probably want this separate from the website that customers see. It can be off-putting to a customer to read about a company’s aggressive approach to sales, or to see what kind of compensation is offered to its sales force.

5) Testimonials. Of course you’ll have customer testimonials on your main site, but there’s no reason you can’t create another site devoted to customer stories.

Look at each category currently on your main corporate website and see if it would work as a separate site. You want a good handful of websites that can rank high for a search on your company name, and which you can keep filled with positive content.

With enough websites associated with your company, you can own the first page of a Google search, which is what it takes to maintain a positive online reputation.

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 www.YourName.com, 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 www.univ.edu/student/personal/pages/your-name.html. 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.

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