When Bing Crosby sang “You’ve got to accentuate the positive/and eliminate the negative” back in 1944, he probably wasn’t thinking about the internet and promoting business reputation.
But at its simplest, those two ideas are the underlying principles behind managing your online reputation, and moreover, they’re intrinsically linked. You can either be proactive in promoting your business online, or you can sit back and hope none of the hundreds of millions of people online have made negative comments about your business.
Take Google. It accounts for 50 per cent of all internet searches. Many Google searchers reportedly never look beyond the first ten links. This means your most visible reputation is dictated by ten blue links and a few lines of text. So, it is worth monitoring your online reputation.
Finding out what’s being said about you or your company online needs to incorporate blogs, microblogs, social networking, video sharing websites, news feeds, forums, message boards and whatever other new buzz tool Web 2.0 throws up this week.
There are a variety of free tools online that will allow you to search through these sites or monitor in real time, but watching everything can be complicated, confusing and time-consuming. And that’s before you even attempt to respond to the content. This is why there is a growing need for services which can help you track your online profile and reputation by providing a consolidated view of comments from all sources, and then filtering and categorising these to make it easier to see the wood for the trees.
A free tool to help you gauge your online reputation is Google Alerts. However, it is hardly the entire picture. Google (and Yahoo) only alert you to content once they index it for search. This will be quick for major sites such as the BBC and CNN, but for many others it will be once a day, once a week or even less frequently. Nor does Google aim to be comprehensive. For example, they tend to ignore comments on lower-ranked sites.
Google Alerts is thought to cover only 30 per cent of all the online content. In particular blogs, forums and social media sites are not comprehensively covered. For example, Technorati and Board Reports are better for blogs and forums. Generally the answer is to have an aggregator to bring these sources together and collate and categorise the results. BuzzMonitor and LeafRSS are examples of such tools.
As for paid services, there are a confusing number. A significant advantage they offer over free tools is in offering custom filters to fine tune the results and reduce the number of irrelevant ones. However, many of them are targeted at tracking marketing or advertising campaigns to assess “buzz” value.
If your business is Travel XYZ, and your potential customers are searching for information about you, their first impression is most likely to be influenced not by your official website, but by the information that comes up when they conduct a Google search.
The first or second link might be to the official TravelXYZ.com site. But, what if among the other search results in the top ten, there is one featuring links to a disgruntled review of one of your holiday packages, a forum thread about how “Travel XYZ stole my money”, or even a dedicated complaints blog called TravelXYXsucks.com?
It is immaterial whether the comments on the negative sites are correct or not. The problem is that, just like in the offline world, first impressions count. No matter how good your official website, those negative sites are going to sit in the mind of your potential customers and contacts and at the very best raise doubts. At worst, it could see the potential customer pass over your business and seek out a company with a more favourable online presence.
So what can you do? Your first instinct is probably to do everything you can to get the negative content removed. After all, if someone spray-painted something about your business on the side of your shop front, you’d do everything in your power to have it removed as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately when it comes to online content, having items removed is not always straightforward. On many occasions efforts to force people to remove online comment has backfired, only creating more attention on the negative content, attracting visitors and shooting it up the Google rankings ”¦ maybe even ahead of the official site!
A positive identity
Rather than move in a heavy-handed fashion to have negative content removed, a “softly softly” approach may achieve a better outcome. For example, you could try putting across your side in a constructive and positive way (sometimes you may want to engage the services of a PR expert to help you). Another tactic might involve engaging the services of a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) specialist to manipulate the search results, striving to eliminate the negative by starting to accentuate the positive.
What does this mean? It includes establishing a positive identity for your business online. This has two effects. First, by becoming more prominent online you stand a better chance of “owning” your search rankings (so as to lessen the chance that isolated incidents will rise to prominence on Google). Secondly, you begin to engage your customers in a positive and transparent way and maybe even head off potential negative comments before they are made.
The first and most obvious way to establish your profile online is with your own website. A website allows you to strengthen your connection with your existing customers and also act as a first impression for potential new customers.
A simple, good, informative site with lots of interesting and helpful information describing how you can meet people’s needs, will reflect favourably on your brand and can help create an image of professionalism. Chances are most businesses already have a website, but there is often scope for enhancing its presence and ranking by providing useful content, such as regularly updated information on your business and advice on new developments in your industry.
A good forum is a public meeting space where like-minded people can come together to discuss their interests in a friendly and supportive environment. Some forums contain thousands of users, all interested in the very topic your company happens to market. If you’re the marketing manager for a professional football team, then monitoring an unofficial fans forum featuring thousands of members would seem a useful way to gauge how fans feel about your team.
However, watch the online forum environment for a while before you leap in. Some companies have tried creating dummy profiles and logging onto forums to promote their products direct to users under the guise of being a member of the public. This kind of marketing is almost always a failure, and serves only to alienate potential customers. Internet users are cynical, and a new user with a handful of posts who only seems to promote your product will probably be seen through and most likely be banned from the forum.
What’s more, within the EU this type of “buzz marketing” exposes you to a possible fine of up to £5,000 and two years imprisonment under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 which came into force last year. In practice, even if no prosecution is brought, a practice deemed illegal by the Advertising Standards Authority could lead to other undesirable consequences. For example, insurers may disclaim liability, suppliers may argue they have a right to walk away from particular contracts, or other bodies such as the Consumers’ Association could become involved.
So, in view of the potential ramifications, and the practices known to lead to online success, the key is transparency. Make a profile in your own or your company’s name, include links to your official website and make an effort to contribute useful information to the forum so as to become a valuable member. By establishing yourself as a trustworthy authority on a topic, you can grow the profile of your business and your potential customer base.
Blogs can be read by millions of readers worldwide, with some of the most popular blogs attracting thousands of daily readers.
While blogs are normally associated with individuals and personal interests, corporate blogging is become increasingly popular. A 2006 study by Jupiter Research estimated 34 per cent of large companies had blogs, with many more companies planning on starting one.
A corporate blog which is open to the public can be a great way to engage with your customers and give them an insight into the day-to-day operations of your business. A blog is also flexible, allowing you to comment on news, announcements or even bad news about your company in a friendly, easily accessible and less formal way than a traditional press release.
A microsite is a website which is separate to your main business website and has its own domain. For example, VandelayClothing.com might be your primary website, which advertises a range of clothing available for order. However, perhaps you want to give prominence to a Christmas sale, without distracting from your core site and changing its content. In that situation you may look at creating the microsite VandelayChristmas.com, which focuses on the specific Christmas sale. The added benefit of such a microsite is you can conduct contextual advertising.
Contextual advertising involves banner advertising on other websites depending on keywords. For example, using contextual advertising you could target internet users who are searching for Christmas information with targeted advertising about your specific Christmas website.
A social networking site is a website that allows you to connect and interact with people with similar interests. There are literally hundreds of social networking sites, the most popular including Facebook, Linked In and Twitter. They allow you to create profiles and share your thoughts, opinions and musings with a worldwide audience.
But what if you do a Google search of your business and nothing comes up? Is there still a need to “accentuate the positive”, by establishing an online presence and actively promoting your business? If anything it’s more important than ever.
As Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”.
Shireen Smith is a Solicitor and founder of Azrights Solicitors, an Intellectual Property and Internet law firm focusing on online brand management, including reputation monitoring. An associated business, Alpha Analytic Ltd, and its recently launched brand Ferreter offers monitoring services.