What is Online Reputation Management?
It is rare that a successful long standing company does not at some stage have some kind of negative feedback from a competitor who is jealous, a dissatisfied client, a prima-donna who wants to look special or just someone who simply wants to rock the boat. Of course the vast majority of website owners do not have a problem with their reputation.
However, with more and more user- generated content media and social media opportunities, there is the danger that negative comments/posts can find themselves in the top 10 of Google, or even worse, above-the-fold on a search for your company name, individual name, brand/product name or main keywords.
I am a great believer in free speech. However, free speech has its drawbacks. Sometimes negative feedback can get written with little justification or evidence provided. This can be disastrous PR wise, especially for strong brands.
Sometimes, however, negative comments are justified. In this case, a marketing manager will still want the “negative” page on the second page of Google results. It is a bit of a problem for SEO companies to offer this service, as they could be seen as manipulating Google to the detriment of users if there is a real basis for negative comments, and could themselves face a problem with their reputation. “ABAKUS helping the XYZ cowboys to gain reputation!”. This article, however, assumes that the reputation management is justified.
Identification of Keywords/Keyword phrases
Often a company will check just their company name, brand name, product name and individual names. These are of course important, as they refer specifically to a company. However, you should also check other potential relevant keywords. It may not be just your company name that reveals a top 10 negative listing but also one of your main keyword phrases.
Tip: Having checked the main reputation keywords such as company name, brand etc., look at the title tag of the negative page(s) to see if they contain other search terms that are relevant for your site and check if they are also found in the top 10 of Google. Don’t think automatically that it’s just your company/brand/product/individual keywords that are affected.
First Contact with Domain Owner
It seems obvious, but in the heat of a panic you may well forget to simply ask the owner of the site with the negative comment (particularly if it’s a blog/forum comment) to remove it. That does not mean in the first instance you should start with threatening language such as cease and desist letters etc. Website owners often don’t even know that user-generated content on their website includes any negative comments.
Use a bit of psychology; tell them that you are impressed with their site, tell them how surprised you were that such unfounded false and unjustified comments were allowed on the site. Ask them if they would kindly remove the post/comment as it is not based on truth or fact and is damaging to your good reputation… if you have evidence, be sure to provide it.
Do not go in all gung-ho with threats of any kind. Be nice!
Second contact with Domain Owner
If the owner does not respond or refuses to remove the negative comment/post, then express your disappointment and mention that due to the PR damage the post is causing, you will be contacting your lawyer for advice, as you feel it is defamation/libel and request again to have it removed within a time scale of, say, five days. Still do not use aggressive or threatening language at this stage.
Third Contact with Domain Owner
If you still get no response, seek legal advice. It may well be against the law (defamation/slander) and not just a case of free speech, especially if the owner of the site is in any way a competitor or in your field. Sometimes a letter or phone call from a lawyer will sort things out quickly. Many are reluctant to do this, as they fear the costs and time involved of bringing in a lawyer. However, the costs of pushing a negative comment/post on to a second page of Google are usually very much higher than the hiring of a good Internet lawyer.
Do not (as two competitors have disastrously done in the past) make your first step a letter or call from a lawyer, or in one case, send without any prior warning or contact, a legal cease-and-desist letter. This can backfire disastrously should it be known in the community that legal pressure is being applied to “stifle free speech” and end up blogged and posted everywhere.
Removal of page with comment/post not an option
In some cases there is simply no possible way to persuade a website owner to remove a negative comment/post. In this case you need to push the page with the negative comments on to the second results page of Google. How do you do this? Well, there are many ways to do it. These can be basically categorized into five areas…
Bump up existing pages that have positive or neutral comments.
Create new content for syndication through articles, a new blog etc.
Add new sub-domains, new sister domains, other tlds (preferably other IP c-blocks) (.at, .ch) .
Add content to external strong authority/trusted domains and use social media avenues.
Reducing authority/trust on offending pages.
Let’s take a look at them in detail, starting with bumping up existing pages with positive or neutral comments.
Bump up existing pages with positive or neutral comments
Not all the results in the top 20 will be negative. If, for example, the negative comment for, say, your company name is currently ranking fourth on Google, you need basically 7 pages of positive or neutral content ranking above it to push it onto the second page.
Take a look at the Google results immediately below the negative page to start with, and then work your way down. You will most likely have no direct influence on these pages, but what you can do is push them up indirectly through link building and promoting them through social media bookmarking. You may be able to help the relevance/ranking by adding a further comment if possible on the positive/neutral page with, say, a link to other positive reviews or your home page to increase relevancy. Mostly, however you need to look at pushing these pages through links.
Why not from your own page? eg. “what others have said about us…”, “Other feedback on xyz gmbh.”
Persuade anyone you know (happy clients, business partners, resellers, friends pages etc.,) particularly those with a strong authority/trusted domain, to link to the positive/neutral page(s) with the targeted keyword. Of course not all will, but there is no harm in asking. Do not just go for one or just two types of pages to push. Basically Google likes diversity of content by search terms, so do not just push press releases or just forums. Mix it up so you have blogs/forums/press releases/existing sub-domains etc.
Create new content through articles, new blog etc.
First of all, check your “about us” / „contact“ / „our team“ pages. Make sure you optimize them by adding — say if the company name is a problem – the company name at the front of the title tag. This could mean you don’t get just the one entry but two entries in Google for your company name. This in itself pushes the offending page down one place.
You could also add new features, such as your own forum/blog, ensuring the keywords are in the title tag. Write articles that could be seen as controversial or are in some way oriented towards linkbaiting (fun, controversial, very useful). This has the effect of not only boosting your own authority through external links if that is a problem, but it may well be syndicated on large websites (promote it as such) and therefore could result in a strong website taking up the article.
Tip: If you already have two results in Google, then do not let this article page be indexed by Google; otherwise, there may be a duplicate content issue if a large website takes up the article. Obviously, in the articles you use a title/headline that includes the offending keywords.
Add new sub-domains, new sister domains (.co.uk, .info)
Very effective is the use of sub-domains. Google sees them as separate sites, but they do still carry the authority and trust of the root domain. Eg. “ABAKUS Internet Marketing” in Google.de lists, in the first place, my forum (because it’s the page most linked to); in the second place my actual home page; but in the third and forth places are my sub-domain semseo.abakus-internet-marketing.de for my SEMSEO conference.
You do have to be sure when you create a sub-domain that you do not just copy content from your main domain, and that it does have useful, unique content. It doesn’t need 100 pages in it. Ten or so pages per sub-domain is also fine. Do not overdo it. Maybe create two to three sub-domains.
Sub-domains aren’t the only answer. Maybe you already have other existing domains. Be sure the existing “sister” domains are well-optimized and well-linked externally. If you don’t have any other domains, then you can create new domains, ensuring the keyword you want to cover is in the domain name.
One company well known to those in my field (for the wrong reasons) has, in a vain attempt to keep negative comments out of the top 10, created so many different domains that I can’t count them all. Many are n the format of xxxxxx-<city>.de etc. — with some success, I might add. Five of the separate “sister” domains are in the top 10 (unfortunately for them, most are below the negative feedback).
If you are going to create new domains, do not expect instant success. These domains will need their own link juice and will tend to take a few months to even show up in the top 15. You will also need content for these pages, which should be different from what you already have (duplicate issues).
You may even consider going multi-lingual or at least covering .co.uk and .info. These will be viewed as separate domains, and although the tld isn’t .com, they can also rank well in a google.com search.
Don’t forget for sub-domains and for new domains you will need to make sure they are well linked to — and not just from your own existing websites.
Add content to external strong authority domains and use social media avenues.
A really effective way of pushing negative pages down is to identify strong authority/trusted domains that allow user-generated content or entries through payment.
For example, a search for my full name, “Alan Webb,” lists in the top 10 one result from my Xing profile and two results from Twitter (twitter.com); there is also a sevenload result (someone recorded me at my pub conference doing karaoke).
Another example of the effectiveness of using other strong domains can be seen through the results when typing in my company name, “Abakus Internet Marketing.” The first page includes results from interworld.de, marketing-boerse.de, openpr.de and interestingly a mister-wong bookmark page. All of those domains are fairly strong authorities and are trusted.
If you do not have a Twitter account, get one, and use the keyword in the user name. Twitter, by the way is very effective indirectly for SEO, but not in the sense of direct linkage; that article is perhaps for another day.
Consider MySpace and Facebook or other social bookmarking network entries. And of course, create interesting press releases, ensuring your keywords are in the heading, and make sure you get a professional PR company to distribute the press release to as many press portals as possible. Last but not least, don’t forget to also link to these “piggy back” pages from your own and external websites.
Reducing authority on negative pages.
This is a tricky one. Often the reason a page ranks well has a lot to do with how and from whom it is linked. Therefore, check to see who is linking to the negative comment/post page. A good way to do this is through Yahoo! Type in the search mask for Yahoo the following…
This will provide you a list of all pages that link to the negative page externally. Obviously, change the domain name and page name to the one relevant for you.
Once you have identified who links to this page (sometimes there are no links, so you can skip this bit), see if there is anyone listed who you know, or who would be sympathetic with you, and request they remove the link, or at least change the link text if it includes your keyword. Again, be polite and do not threaten.
There may well be a legal way to force them to remove your company name from the link. I am not sure, but I believe you can enforce improper use of your brand/copyright name. There are other ways to reduce the trust and authority of a domain, but these involve so-called "black hat" techniques which, if found out, could backfire in a horrendous way. If the domain is established and an authority, many black hat techniques wouldn’t work anyway.
A company’s PR department/marketing department or agency should be monitoring company/brand/product/individual keys at all times. If not, consider setting up a “Google Alert” for your keywords (it’s free). There are probably thousands of major companies out there who don’t even realize they have a problem, as they simply don’t bother to Google themselves.
Even when you have succeeded in pushing a negative comment to page two, you should be very vigilant. For example, the poster of the negative comment gets annoyed that his/her comment is now on page two, so tries to find a page that is now top 10 where he/she can add a new negative comment. That’s why it can be dangerous to push content up that is still open for comments. Also, be vigilant when you send out press releases that enable comment features.
You can of course decide to post a rebuttal to negative comments. Often, however, this can involve a long flaming discussion, particularly in forums, which can often end up making things worse.
The general advice is not to offer a rebuttal comment unless you can provide hard evidence, directly in your comment, that what is said is not true or unfair. Also ask the website owner if he will allow outbound links (no rel=nofollow) to positive comments on other pages (that you have yourself pushed as above) in order to achieve a fair balance in the comments.
As you can see, it isn’t all that straightforward and simple. It takes time, resources and money. Consider if it is really worth the time money and effort.
You should at least take the first contact steps listed above. For some companies, especially strong, well-known brands, good rankings for negative comments highly visible in the Google results page can be disastrous.
Corporate communication and PR managers have neglected online reputation management for years. Usually, the thinking is that there is nothing that can be done, and the approach is to just hope they will go away. There is a lot you can do, but as with most things in life, it takes work and money.