What happened was this: I appeared in an article that took what I had said out of context. According to my colleagues and friends, the article wasn't that bad. But, it wasn't that good, either. And herein lies the question: How do you put your best foot forward online? How do you manage your reputation online when reputation, by its very definition, is determined by other peoples' opinions?
Before any "how" must come the "why." Why should businesses be concerned about what people are saying about them online? First off, word of mouth is the most trusted source of information for purchasing decisions. An eMarketer report showed that 91% of people seek advice from others, and 94% give advice when it comes to buying products and services. Of course, the "who" also matters. Most of us will respect and trust the opinion of friends and family more than strangers. With the rise of blogs, customer reviews and rating systems, the collective power of online opinion has a value that, while a close second to that of trusted friends, is becoming increasingly important.
Let's also remember that one opinion online can reach far more people than most offline interactions -- and that without the face-to-face interaction, people may be far more vocal and opinionated online. To put this into context, in 2008, 28 million people are expected to wield influence online about products and services in the US alone. And search is the medium being used to find these online opinions.
Online reputation management and search go hand in hand. Imagine opening a page of a magazine and being faced with headline upon headline about the same person. Without reading any articles and without knowing that person, your opinion of them is soon formed. That's the power of a search engine results page for your brand. The search engines are where people turn to for their information. So, how can you use search engine marketing to get the best headline for your brand out there? Here are just some of many tactics to think about:
1. Use search engine marketing to turn a negative into an opportunity. Last year there was a dog food recall and Pedigree, the dog food company, used the incident as a way to positively promote its reputation online. When a user searched on Google for the term "dog food recall," a PPC ad for Pedigree appeared saying "100% safe - not part of recall." I didn't notice any ads for the companies that were affected by the recall. They could have used the immediacy of PPC to engage with their audience, apologize for the incident and tell them what the company was doing to address it. While a PPC ad campaign would of course not correct the problem, it could have shown that the company was acting responsibly, which could positively affect perception and reputation.
2. Reputation is more about influence than it is about advertising. You can develop your site into an information hub as well as sales tool. Include reviews and articles about your brand on your site. Introduce forums and create a blog. Encourage dialogue, thus generating a wealth of information that is continually being created. Ensure that this content has been search-engine-optimized to maximize pick-up.
3. Bid on your brand terms. This may be Branding 101 -- but McDonald's and Starbucks weren't doing it at time of writing. Last year, a study found that brand terms accounted for a third of the top searches on Google, Yahoo and MIVA. And according to Hitwise, one in seven brand searches does not end up on a brand's Web site. Increase your chances of getting users there by appearing in both the natural and paid search results.
4. A picture speaks a thousand words. And there are a lot of bad images out there, especially of personalities. Around 15% of searches on Google occur on 'Images,' and with the move towards Universal Search, the integration of photos and videos on a search results page has only just begun. And who wants to have a bad image? Make sure that you are using and optimizing images as well as submitting them to the engines' image feeds. Google uses two different algorithms for images - one for the "Image" search and one for "Web" search. And Flickr is important for appearing in Yahoo image searches as well as for helping to optimize your images for all the engines.
While we all love favorable headlines, search engine marketing, PR, or any other marketing tactic cannot, and should not, cloud a reality. If there is a lot of negative feedback about your brand, the best thing to do is to listen to it. At the same time, negative opinions for brands that offer good products and services should not be the only headlines out there.