Take Charge of Your Online Reputation

Whether you’re just one person with a small business web site or you have the tremendous online presence of a large company to think about, how you’re perceived makes a big difference in your bottom line. You can never control it completely, but you can learn how to monitor your reputation and put your best foot forward.

It’s disconcerting, but the truth is that items that reflect poorly on you or your company can come from anywhere: disgruntled customers, former employees, even – quite inadvertently – yourself. You would be wise to assume that anyone on the verge of doing business with you will Google your name and/or the name of your company. Do you know what comes up for you in a Google search?

I’m very pleased to say that nothing embarrassing comes up for me or my company in the first three pages of a Google search. I couldn’t always say that; it wasn’t my fault that I shared my name with a former Playboy centerfold (who seems to have since changed the spelling of her name). But that case of mistaken identity is trivial in comparison to what comes up in Google for some of the best-known companies and brands online.

Let’s take a look at some of these brands. Search for Coca Cola in Google and the fifth link on the first page leads to “Killer Coke,” a site that cites “undisputed reports” that the company’s bottling plant managers in Colombia encouraged murder. Search for McDonald’s, and the fourth link from the top leads to “McSpotlight,” a site that talks about “McDonald’s exploitation of animals, people and the environment.” A search for Martha Stewart Living is almost funny in comparison; the first page offers a link to a parody site where the decorating diva supposedly offers tips for living behind bars.

If the big companies run into problems getting it right, you can bet that your online reputation may not be totally spotless either. And you’re not alone; businesses have sprung up specifically to alert their customers when something negative is published about them online, and to fix these reputation issues. Reputation Defender is an example of such a company; there are others.

Short of hiring someone to watch it for you, what can you do to manage and improve your online reputation? In this article, I’m going to talk about some of the positive steps you can take, regardless of whether you’re starting with a completely clean slate. In my next article, I hope to cover what you can do if and when the negative press gets out of hand.

The first thing you should keep in mind is that this isn’t really a new problem, it’s just moved to a new media. The earliest reference I could find to online reputation management after some quick research with Google dates to 2003, and compares it to the political phrase “spin control.” Now, the phrase “online reputation management,” without quotes, returns 806,000 hits in Google. And it’s no wonder. With so many people participating online on social sites, web forums, blogs, and in many other places, a flood of user-generated content could damage your company. But you can’t always see the tide.

Fortunately, there are tools that can help you find out how you’re viewed online. I’ve already mentioned checking the search engines. Many people put their names or the names of their companies into the search engines to see what comes up. You can actually set up alerts with the major search engines to send you a notification whenever certain terms get a new mention in their indexes. You’ll want to set up alerts for your own name, your company name and the names of any recognized members of your staff (you can bet the PR folks at Apple have alerts in for more than just Steve Jobs!). You may also want alerts for at least some of your products.

You will probably want to set up similar alerts with blog search engines. Feedster and Technorati are good places to start. Yahoo and Google also have blog search engines.

If there are sites or portals that are specific to your industry, you’ll want to check those at least once a month. SEOs, for example, would want to run searches on Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land, and perhaps one or two other sites. Since you should be trying to keep up with the latest information in your field anyway, this may not be too onerous.

So what should you do if and when you encounter some negative press? I’ll be covering that in my next article. For the rest of this article, I’ll cover some of the things you can do to help you build up some positive momentum and publicity online.

One thing that you should NOT do, however, is panic. In late August last year, Search Engine Lowdown ran a post which talked about the response of some Shaolin monks demanding an apology from a Japanese “ninja” who claimed online to have beaten all of them in unarmed combat. It’s clear that the monks wanted to be taken seriously; on the other hand, hiring a lawyer to fight someone who has said something that no sane person would take seriously is probably not the way to accomplish this goal. The author of the blog entry on Search Engine Lowdown remarked that he couldn’t help laughing at the idea “of a bunch of monks sitting behind their lawyer’s table in a crowded courtroom.”

Rob Garner wrote a piece for Media Post Publications that gives 17 tips to help you improve your online reputation. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you’re starting from a blank slate. You might well have heard of some of these resources before; if you’re already using them, give yourself points for being in touch with these issues already. None of it will happen without some work on your part, of course, but then again, building a reputation offline isn’t easy; why should building one online be any different?

Let’s start with the social sites. Nothing says getting down to business like a good LinkedIn profile. Don’t follow my own example; at this writing, I still haven’t gotten around to doing the appropriate work. You want to build a real page, with real connections, that gives anyone looking at your profile a good sense of who you are, what you’re about, and what you’re after. I hope to cover ways in which you can use SEO on your LinkedIn profile in a future article.

Likewise, you’ll want to create profiles on other social media sites, like MySpace and Flickr. You might want to consider Facebook as well. Just keep in mind that whatever you post on those sites may come back to haunt you, so think before you upload. Also, be mindful of copyright and the site’s Terms of Service; content entered into Flickr, for instance, is covered under a Creative Commons license.

Start a blog. Garner recommends using WordPress. In fact, he recommends starting a blog on WordPress, and starting a WordPress blog on your own domain (you DO have a domain, right?). Expect to devote some serious time and effort to this blog. Make it real; put content into it that readers will enjoy and find useful. You’re not going to get a good reputation if you put out bad content. Speaking of which, that’s another point that Garner makes: “Avoid putting out any material that you wouldn’t want in your primary namespace. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I’ll assume you already have a domain. You want to make sure that you add useful and unique content to it regularly. Search engines love content. Keep writing useful content for your visitors and you’ll be on your way to establishing yourself and/or your company as an expert in your field of endeavor. Once you build a reputation as an expert, other blogs may start linking to you; they may even ask to interview you. That’s the kind of good publicity you can’t buy. It’s also the kind of publicity that will help get you to the top of the search engine results pages.

You can play this angle in several ways. For example, you can do research to find out which bloggers cover your field. Send them a polite email with a press release. If they use it, you can send them more. Don’t flood them with press releases; space them out over time. And make sure the news you’re sending them really is something they’d want to write about. I still remember reading a post from one blogger who wrote about receiving an “urgent” press release with “exciting” news – the company sending it had just changed their logo! The blogger’s response: big deal; send me something that would be important to me and my readers.

Another way you can play the content angle is to seek out someone to interview you about your field, your favorite hobby, or your favorite passion. After the interview, get a copy and publish it on your web site. If you were interviewed by someone in the media for a particular publication, make sure you have permission to publish it first! Worst case, you can usually link to the interview. But even someone who does a blog for love rather than money may be able to do a creditable interview and not mind at all if you post it on your site. Free publicity can work both ways in that case.

Remember that text is not the only form of content these days. Images and video also attract a fair share of visitors, especially when they’re properly optimized so that the search engines will see the important related keywords. Don’t bore your visitors. As with your text-based content, keep it useful; funny and entertaining are also important with video. Short and funny is much better than long and boring.

That’s about all I have room for this time. In my next article on online reputation management, I’ll talk about what to do if and when you do encounter negative comments about you and/or your company online.

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