Online marketing experts have spent a lot of time providing advice on managing online ratings and reviews for local businesses — but reputation can have much broader impact than your reviews in Yelp and Google.
There’s hardly a business out there that doesn’t have an occasional issue arise with a customer. Ideally, you can resolve things before it reaches a point where a customer believes they can only get satisfaction through a public forum or feels they ought to warn people about your business. The internet has made it so the barriers between one customer and another are far reduced — word-of-mouth can now travel almost literally at the speed of light!
But, if you’ve prepared and planned for how to handle online criticism of your company, the impact of one or two complaints can be much reduced, and you may be better able to respond effectively and rapidly to minimize monetary impact.
You Can’t Opt Out Of Reputation Management
For many small businesses, the complete lack of proactive reputation management leaves them in the position of a sitting duck. With little more than just a website to represent you online, you’re in a precarious position if anyone creates a site to target you or even just posts something on social media, as those items could rank for your business name searches. For established local businesses, people may frequently be searching for you by business name — so, having bad stuff rank in branded search results can directly impact your bottom line.
Online reputation management and repair has been a burgeoning segment of online marketing for years. My company has worked on numerous cases of reputation repair, and it’s quite clear to me that if a business doesn’t invest in developing their online presence and reputation proactively, they will more than likely pay considerable costs later in terms of lost revenues, repairing abrupt damage, and developing out the presence they neglected.
For businesses tied closely to the identities of their proprietors/founders, the names of their executives may be another area of reputation that needs to be managed proactively. I’ve run across a good many executives who desire to keep a low profile and thus have avoided all forms of social media out of a desire for privacy. Again, with zero assets built around the executive’s name, they may be a sitting duck for some reputation damage the instant someone decides to take them down a notch.
Perhaps the only thing worse than under-engaging in online media is handling social media badly. No one can damage you as seriously as you can damage yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. Entrepreneurs and small business employees sometimes develop a major case of hubris — perhaps because those operating small businesses have to be jacks-of-all-trades to some degree just to be able to run a small business effectively.
But, knowing how to create a great product and being able to do all the things necessary to successfully manage and run a small business doesn’t automatically make you an effective communicator in the internet space.
With these concepts in mind, here are 10 professional tips for your online reputation management.
1. Create A Presence On Any And All Relevant Web Properties
Your company should already have Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ accounts, at minimum. If you’re in a highly competitive market and vertical, you may need to be active on some additional social media sites, as well — there are dozens available, some of which may be specific to your industry.
For many B2B, high-tech and/or professional types of businesses, having executives and employees integrate with LinkedIn may be valuable. For visually-oriented products, using Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr may be needed. And, most businesses will benefit from some number of videos shared through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.
2. Don’t Neglect Your Social Media Accounts
It’s important to build out your social media accounts. Merely having a Twitter, Facebook and Google+ account/page for your business is insufficient — you need to develop your audience on them, too. With ongoing development, you can build your social media accounts in order to interact with customers and to increase your influence and engagement scores.
If you don’t do this, those accounts may not be strong enough to outrank the postings if someone begins to post negative things. While we don’t know precisely how Google and Bing may assess the strength of social media accounts, you can use some independent scoring utilities to assess whether you’re achieving growth. Two of the better-known ones are Klout and Kred.
3. Consider Your Brands And Products
You may need to build out online materials and social profiles for more than just your company name. If you have brand and product names beyond your company name, you likely ought to develop content to rank for those names as well. You may need to develop websites, web pages, social media profiles and collateral materials just to claim and reserve each brand name.
4. Protect Individuals Associated With The Business
Develop a strong social media presence for your founders’, owners’, or executives’ names, particularly if they are distinctive. As I described above, keeping a low online profile to preserve your privacy just leaves you wide open for any drive-by defamers!
There are quite a few businesses where the company’s identity is fairly entangled with their executives, and a solid reputation management strategy is vital for these. Consumers often search by name for doctors, dentists, and lawyers (to name a few), so create collateral to rank for these individuals if they don’t already have any.
5. Implement Authorship Where Applicable
I declared Authorship to be my top marketing tactic of 2013, and it’s still a significant advantage when done properly. This is primarily for businesses where a founder/proprietor is closely associated with the business’s identity. Google requires authors to be individuals; thus, the author tag must be associated with an individual Google+ profile, not with a business page.
Using the author tag assumes you’ll be doing some ongoing publishing of articles or blog posts over time or else it’s not worthwhile — which leads us to the next point.
I’m serious! I’ve called blogging a secret weapon for local SEO because it helps with a site’s rankings on good keywords (if done properly) and provides fodder for one’s social media accounts.
For reputation purposes, it not only can rank for your name, it can give you a solid “home court” ground where you can directly respond to any major assertions made about your company if necessary.
When responding to online complaints or bad reviews, seriously consider that there may be some weaknesses in your process that need to be addressed — particularly if you get frequent negative feedback about a specific thing. Remember the adage that “the customer is always right”? Don’t be inflexible; come up with a creative way to give customers what they’re wanting without creating friction.
I’ve seen business processes that just seemed dumb, or service fees that just made customers feel like they’ve been gouged. Just because you can pressure people into paying more doesn’t mean that you should. Consider that you could be driving existing or potential customers into the arms of your competitor. The extra money you make on that annoying fee could be cancelled out by business lost from those who see numerous complaints about it online.
If you or your company messes up, fails or otherwise does something wrong, own up to it — and make a genuine apology to those who have been affected. Being real and transparent in apologizing can go far toward diffusing a situation and moving the process along toward reconciliation or, at least, toward making a crisis situation come to a close.
If you do it, make sure the apology is authentic — don’t do one of those weaselly, “I’m sorry you allowed my actions to make you feel bad” statements that are disingenuous nonsense. Also, try to make amends in some way, unconditionally.
9. Don’t Get Into Online Arguments
It’s very easy to get sucked into this — but even if you’re technically right, you might lose out overall by just coming across as petty, harsh or unprofessional. Worse yet, you might actually be wrong… and once you get emotionally riled up, you could end up saying and doing things that damage your reputation. (For a dramatic example, read about the epic Facebook meltdown of a husband-wife restaurateur team.)
The best approach is to diffuse situations and take communications offline to try to reconcile. Be nicer in your online interactions than you even think you need to be. Your professional responses may win more customers than being “right” in an online disagreement. Feel yourself getting drawn into escalating conflict? Walk away from your computer.
10. Make The Investment
Reputation development requires an investment, both in time and money. Most small, local businesses are either ignoring proactive reputation management or they are doing it themselves, on a shoestring, and on an as-needed and as-they-have-time-to-do-it basis.
I’d argue that social media and proactive reputation management should be considered vital elements, not nice-to-haves. Further, if you don’t have experience in interacting with online communities, doing it yourself may not be good enough or may exacerbate any issues that can arise. So, make the investment — and if you don’t have the time to do it, don’t know how, or just aren’t getting the job done, hire someone to handle it for you.
Following these tips may help to put you and your business in a stronger position if or when someone posts something that slams your good name. Proactive online reputation management is going to cost you something to put in place, but it will save you some money in the long run if the nearly-inevitable occurs. Think of it as a form of insurance. It won’t absolutely keep you from getting damaged, but it could mitigate the damage and keep it from being worse than it might otherwise be.
If you do get slammed by some unfair or over-the-top criticism, a number of strategic approaches can come into play.
From the search engine optimization perspective, we like to have all these collateral pieces in place — your website, blog, social media profiles, informational webpages and more — all set up optimally to rank for your brand names. We then work to try to help those collateral pieces to outrank any negative materials.
There are other strategies that can work in concert with the SEO approach. For instance, legal action may be taken if someone has portrayed you or your business inaccurately. One site that’s often considered the worst-of-the-worst in terms of facilitating the publication of unfairly damaging materials is RipOffReport.com – and it is possible to bring legal action to make RipOff Reports disappear from search engine results in Google and Bing.
In a minority of cases, one may also choose to consult with public relations specialists in crafting a response to particularly damaging claims or news. If an accident has occurred and your product has physically injured someone, it may be vital to publish some sort of response acknowledging the situation and pledging to help those affected.
Even when addressing an online public relations crisis with a legal action response, or through carefully crafted public relations statements, if you’ve already set up and optimized your online presence, you can leverage those assets to best represent you and reduce some of the negative content that can occur. Be sure to review and realistically audit whether you have done everything you should do in managing your online reputation.
Local businesses are in many ways much more vulnerable to online reputation attacks. This is one area where a bit of proactive preparation will almost certainly always pay off in the long run!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.