How to clean up your online reputation

Taking control of your online reputation may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be difficult.

If you own a small or medium business, a good reputation--online and offline--is clearly key to your success.

The Internet can overwhelm users with information, so anything negative--especially if it appears high in search results--can have a drastically harmful effect on your company's success and reputation.

A potential customer who searches for your business online is a lot like a recruiter, trying to find the best company for the job.Among U.S. recruiters, 70 percent have rejected candidates based on their online reputation--and yet only 7 percent of Americans believe that their online reputation can affect their job search, according to a 2010 study by Microsoft and Cross-Tab Market Research.

Ignoring how your company appears in search results and on ratings Websites has arguably never been more perilous.

One significant figure in the recently altered relationship between businesses and search engines is Vitaly Borker, owner of retail eyewear Website DecorMyEyes.com, who told the New York Times in November that his unconventional search engine optimization (SEO) strategy worked like a charm: Borker harassed customers, directing them to vent on the Internet. His Website thus climbed higher in Google's search results, bolstered by the many links from established review Websites.

Google immediately reworked its code and buried DecorMyEyes along with other businesses it deemed "bad." Now that Google no longer rewards bad customer service with top spots in searches, it's a good time to examine how your business can get more positive attention in legitimate ways.

Should You Pay for Online Reputation Management?

Deciding to take control of your online reputation is a daunting task, and you may be tempted just to hire someone to do it for you. Online reputation management companies abound on the Internet--claiming everything from 100 percent success rate (or your money back) to a "special technology" that reorders search results.

Such companies may be worth looking into, but there is no magical way to erase content from the Internet. Once something is uploaded to the Web, it's impossible for you or a third party to remove it without help from the administrator of the Website where it appears.

It's even harder to remove content from search engines (like Google) that cache their results and enable surfers, with the click of the Cached link, to view content that has been "removed." In addition, the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine stores records of Websites dating back to the 1990s.

Organizations such as ReputationDefender, RemoveYourName, and Integrity Defenders offer business packages to help you take on your online reputation. Essentially, however, these services focus on two tasks: requesting that negative information about you or your company be taken down, and helping you create new content to displace the negative content.

ReputationDefender, which is perhaps the best-known reputation-oriented service, charges between US$3000 and $10,000 to monitor your reputation. RemoveYourName and Integrity Defenders are a bit cheaper; their packages start at $3000 and $630, respectively. Often the quoted prices are just a starting point. ReputationDefender charges extra, for example, for helping you get rid of unsavory remarks that they uncover.

Here are some key points to remember if you decide to hire an online reputation management company:

  • Weigh any negative reviews of the company more heavily than you normally would. Remember, these companies are in the business of defending and rehabilitating reputations; if 10 "bad" reviews of their own service get through, imagine how many others they may have buried.
  • No company has the magical power to automatically remove negative reviews from the Internet.
  • Consider the benefits of a service that charges monthly versus a flat-fee service. Monthly services, such as BrandsEye, will constantly monitor your reputation. Flat-fee services, such as RemoveYourName, will spend as much time as it takes to get results. If you're looking to remove specific negative reviews, a flat-fee service might be best for you; but if you just want someone to monitor your reputation, a monthly service makes more sense.
  • It's entirely possible that a reputation-monitoring service won't be able to help you, or that the service's efforts may backfire. In the case of Ronnie Segev, ReputationDefender and a blog called The Consumerist ended up in a spitting match after ReputationDefender requested that an article about Segev be removed.

How to Manage Your Online Reputation

If you don't have room in your budget for professional reputation management--or if you've decided that the service doesn't justify the price--you can take on tracking and managing your online reputation by yourself.

Step 1: Track Your Online Presence

  • Perform a search for your company name in a general search engine, such as Google or Bing. Be sure to search not only for your company's name, but also for related keywords, possible misspellings, and phrases (utilizing quotation marks). Note any negative reviews and where your company's Website appears in relation to them (higher or lower). Cross-check your search on other search engines. For tips on effective ways to perform more-detailed searches, see "28 Time-Saving Tricks for Google, Facebook, and More."
  • Run site-specific searches on relevant Websites, including social media Websites such as Facebook and Twitter, review Websites like Yelp and Kudzu, and consumer advocacy sites such as GetSatisfaction and Ripoff Reports. To perform a site-specific search of reviews of cupcake makers on Yelp, for example, type the following into Google: cupcake site:yelp.com
  • Search for individuals if you want to track the information available about you or your colleagues on people search engines such as Spokeo. Though most of these sites simply grab information that's publicly available from other sources, you can try contacting them directly to request that they not present all the data to the public.
  • Sign up for alerts from search engines. Google Alerts allows you to track search terms by type. The service will send any new mentions of your search term to your inbox daily, weekly, or in real time.
  • Consider using BrandsEye or a similar service. This is one part of the process where paying for a service can definitely be useful. BrandsEye, which costs about $100 per month, not only tracks your online presence, but analyzes it, too. BrandsEye weighs each mention of your company as coming from an important or unimportant source and gauges how much effect each mention has on your overall reputation (similar to the way the Google search algorithm supposedly works).

Step 2: Address the Issues

  • Read the reviews, both negative and positive. People usually spend more time reviewing services they feel strongly about, whether that feeling is love or hate. You can thus use negative online reviews constructively, especially if reviewers bring up legitimate complaints.
  • Contact Websites if you encounter any false or unnecessarily vindictive reviews, and request that they be removed.
  • Respond to customer complaints by apologizing and offering your side of the story. Then if someone later sees the negative comment about your company, they'll also see that you're committed to fixing and fostering good relationships with your customers. No matter how tempting it is, never trade insults with the customer--it's harder for potential customers to identify with you than with a fellow consumer.

Step 3: Connect and Create Content

  • Connect with your customers via social networking Websites. It's not enough to have a Facebook page or a Twitter account that you post dry, business-related updates to--you have to engage your customers and help them get to know you, your business, and your brand. Content should be interesting--now is not the time to pitch your business or products--and try to encourage feedback from your followers.
  • Create original content for the search engines, to displace any negative content that is currently popping up. This may take the form of anything from blog posts to informative articles to contests.
  • Never "astroturf" by posting fake reviews, no matter how Web-savvy you are. If you're found out, you'll lose the respect of your customers, and you could also face legal trouble.

Online reputation management might seem like a full-time job, but it doesn't have to be. If you take the steps to gauge the general tone of your brand's online presence and discover that you're doing a pretty good job, retaining a professional reputation defense company to obliterate one or two bad reviews makes little sense. If, on the other hand, your brand has a less-than-stellar reputation on the Internet, be aware that there is no one-step route to a rehabilitated rep; slow and steady relationship building is the most effective way to gain the reputation you desire. In most instances, a small business's marketing teams should be able to handle online reputation management, since much of the task involves basic social networking and Website upkeep, along with reaching out to the clientele.

Unfortunately, bad things have a way of snowballing--or "going viral"--on the Internet, so it's possible that a bad hit to your reputation can become a big deal if you handle it poorly or fail to handle it at all. In these situations, having someone--whether it be a professional company or a full-time staff member--dedicated to protecting your reputation can be very helpful. If your online reputation is getting too hot to handle, for whatever reason, bringing in professional help should remove some of the stress. But no matter how professional a company or individual dedicated to online reputation management may be, ultimately they can't do anything that you couldn't do yourself.

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