When we think of damaged reputations, we usually think of scandals like Pepsi's unfortunate commercial or the horrifying incident on the overbooked United Airlines flight. However, reputations can be damaged by poor reviews, deliberate attack or even a case of mistaken identity. Online reputation management services work to repair damaged images, protect reputations from harm and promote good reputations.
In the age of the internet, it's easy to publicize bad news, and bad news spreads more easily. Even worse, people don't get the whole story – if the story is true, what the circumstances were, and what the company has done since. Therefore, it's vital to make sure the good or neutral news about your company gets to the top of search engine rankings and that you have a strong and positive social media presence. Therefore, the best online reputation management (ORM) companies concentrate on SEO, complaint management, and social media.
Before hiring an online reputation management company, determine why you need or want one. Are you in a reputation crisis, or does your company just not have the online presence you want? If your issue is more publicity than reputation, you may want to look at online marketing or social media services instead.
Next, determine the reputation issues that concern you. Some services excel at promoting individuals, while others work better with complaint issues. Some are best at search engine optimization and content creation, which can get your website to the top of search engine rankings. Knowing what you want helps you pick the right company for you.
What to expect
Regardless of the issue you are facing, you should expect any ORM firm to spend time discussing your reputation issue with you. It should also analyze your online presence and come up with a plan of action. You should be kept apprised every step of the way and have input into the steps taken.
The most common tactics of an ORM focus on burying the negative information with positive or neutral information that shows up higher in a search, providing a way for you to see and address complaints quickly, and keeping a flow of positive feedback and information.
Once your good reputation has been re-established, ORM services should provide advice, means or active monitoring to ensure your reputation remains stable and good. Naturally, they charge for this maintenance period as well.
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Very few ORMs offer packages with pricing, because what work they do depends on your needs and the extent of the damage to your reputation. Therefore, they provide a proposal on the issues they find and the steps they need to take. You can expect a service to want a contract of six or more months to ensure their work takes hold. You can also expect that the first month or two will be more expensive or that the company will ask for an upfront fee, as the early weeks are the most labor-intensive.
Evaluating a company
Few online reputation management companies offer references; after all, they were hired to protect the company's rep, not stir up the past. Some may have references who have agreed to share their stories. Some provide case studies that have identifying information redacted.
If you get a source, don't just call and ask questions; look up the company to see how well the service's work has stuck. Is the company showing up in the top spots on search engines? Are complaints listed on the first page? If the ORM service provided online content, read the stories to see if they are useful or just full of keywords (a bad idea, given the sophistication of search engines now).
The proposal begins with an analysis of your online presence – the positive, negative and neutral information that comes up in web searches for not only your company name, but keywords that might bring up your company. Check that the ORM analyzes comparable links. A reputation score won't mean much if it includes results of your company name as a word found in Google Books.
The ORM checks your ratings on complaint sites and may look at social media. It also looks at your online properties, such as your website and social media accounts, to see how well they rank on searches and the quality of the postings.
The proposal next identifies the key issues and provides recommendations. Here, you want to look for personalization. Does this part of the report specifically reference its findings or list generic services?
Watch out for promises in the proposal. No ORM service can guarantee results. There are too many variables it cannot control. What it can guarantee are its actions. So, if the firm says, "We'll have you ranking in the top three spots in six months," go elsewhere. Rather, look for wording such as "we will provide X pieces of content" or "we will set up this venue for fielding complaints."
Look for black-hat practices. "Black hat" refers to shady practices used to trick search engines. Google lists those that will cause your site to get downgraded, including these:
- Keyword stuffing – plugging in the same keywords repeatedly, regardless of sentence flow
- Content scraping – copying content from other sites to use on yours
- Artificial backlinks – creating websites whose purpose is only to link to your site
- Click manipulation – using programs or employees to click to and around your website to make it look like more people are visiting
- Invisible text – keywords in the text but in the same color as the background
- Fake websites or content – making websites or social media accounts just to flood the search engine with positive content
Some of these practices worked in the past, but search engines have gotten more sophisticated and content-focused. ORMs that use these practices are behind the times at best. Look for companies that can provide useful, information-rich content for your customers.
Other objectional practices target the complaints themselves:
- Intimidation – threatening legal action if a complaint is not removed. Most reputable complaint sites ignore these at best.
- Site sabotage – using hacking, spam bots and denial-of-service attacks to hurt negative websites. Sometimes, they load porn into the comments of a complaint, for example. This is low at best, illegal at worst.
- Astroturfing – creating false accounts to post fake positive reviews
The ORM should recommend an internal process to improve your reputation. If you have issues with customer service, or example, it may suggest training for your representatives. After all, if you don't clean up your reputation, online repair won't last.
Be sure to talk to the people who will handle your account. Are they interested in your issues or just plugging away at a task? Have they taken time to know your company, its goals and culture? How open are they to ideas and changes in their plans?
An attack on your reputation doesn't have to ruin your business if you take action to clean it up and promote yourself in a positive light. Likewise, a good reputation, properly cared for, can blossom into a great one, bringing in more customers. Online reputation management services can help you, but choose wisely.