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With recent advances in search technology, your customers’ experiences can now be instantly in the public domain and, in many cases, magnified by the size and nature of social networks.  This adds to the existing risks posed by sites that offer un-moderated ‘ratings’ of local businesses – many of which you may not even know exist.

If you don’t already, its time to start taking steps to manage your brand’s reputation online – at the very least, to find out if there are any reputation-killers lurking in the dark recesses of the web.  For most businesses, this can be as simple as a doing a couple of quick searches each month, or setting up an automated Google Alert to do the searching for you.  Other businesses may need to dedicate more effort to this issue; particularly ones that are active in social media, have high staff turnover, face very aggressive competitors, or who’ve had problems with product quality or customer service.

In this, the first of two posts on Reputation Management, we’ll cover why you should be concerned and how you can take steps to monitor what’s said about you or your business online.  In the second post, we’ll focus on how to use this information, including strategies for remedying bad situations.

Why You Need To Act

The internet has enabled socially-based, like-minded, and proximate groups of people to form large, electronically-connected communities.  Search engines and web publishing tools like blogs, social media, & mobile technology have made it easy for people to communicate to these large communities with ease and with little constraint on what is communicated.  Google’s recent inclusion of ‘real-time’ Twitter, Facebook, MySpace info will only draw more attention to and activity in sharing customer experiences.  While libel law still applies to this communication, a lot of damage can be done very quickly and the libeler may not have the means, if prosecuted successfully, to compensate for these damages.

Many local businesses have invested years and often considerable sums building the reputations of their brands.   Now that investment can be compromised very quickly and easily online.  We’ve always faced reputation problems from word-of-mouth, but the web vastly accelerates the speed of this communication, extends its reach, and extends the shelf-life of the communication infinitely.  It’s well established that people are willing to say things in these forums that they would never say in face-to-face communication.  Moreover, the sites that spawn reviews and commentary are often the strongest link between businesses and their search engine results.  If you don’t have much online information about your business, a Google search is most likely to grab a reference on review-enabled sites like Citysearch, Yelp, and even Google itself.  Did you even know that someone can post reviews about your business directly from their Google account?  This review will show up in a direct search on the business name or through Google Map searching.

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What Types Of Information Should Concern You?

- Real beefs by patrons whose expectations were not met (regardless of fault).

- Negative comments stemming from misunderstandings or hearsay.

- Malicious (often competitive or employee-generated) negative commentary (sometimes actual libel).

- All other communication that helps you understand what people are saying about your brand!

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How Do You Monitor It?

The first thing you should do is Google your business or personal name.   Play around with keywords, including your zip code or city name, line of business, even partners or major clients.  You should be able to pick up several common referral sites (more on this here) and, depending on your circumstances, a variety of other links.  You may even find Twitter or some limited Facebook information in these results (two sources that are likely to grow in importance this year).  Obviously, read the results and note anything unexpected and bookmark it for further investigation.  Do the same with Bing.com (Microsoft’s search engine) and Yahoo just to be sure.

To automate this searching in the future, set up a Google Alert (this requires a Google email account).  The Alert is a search that you set up, with specific criteria that can include required words (recommended), time frame of publication (start with new or last week), and will give you the chance to specify how frequently the search is conducted.  If the query scores a hit, Google will send you an email with a link and summary that can be used to investigate further.  Recognize that this service often provides more information, or repetition of the same links, than you’d probably like to see.  Information is sometimes aggregated or re-published by affiliates and Google will pick this up.  Try several different alerts with different combinations of keywords.  Test your alerts.  If you do them with a historical time frame, do they pick up the links that you found in straight Google searches? If not, adjust.  This process can be annoying and time-consuming, but just like a periodic Credit Check, it can save you from a lot more inconvenience down the road.

There are also plenty of FREE third party applications to help manage reputations online.  Depending on the nature of your customers and employees, your business may benefit from their ability to parse, sort, and track streams of information coming from social network sites.  Monitter is one tool that helps search on Twitter and if you’re active there, I recommend it.  You can learn more about 26 of these free products at this link.  If you don’t pick up a lot of information in your initial searches, you probably don’t need to worry about these applications at this time.

The internet is a great tool, but it’s also thrown a lot of new challenges our way.  The best strategy is to use the same technology to keep track of what’s being said about you online.  Even if you don’t find true reputation-killers in this effort, you may still learn some interesting things about your business that will help you connect more deeply with customers, improve your service, or extend your marketing reach.  Err on the side of caution, because the cost of unaddressed, incorrect, or malicious reputation-killers can have a significant impact on your business.  Be diligent and good luck!

If you have an experience in reputation management that would interest our readers, please let us know in the comment field below.

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