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The high stakes of online reputation management

Executives, entrepreneurs, and even individuals like you and me all have something in common: we crave some degree of control. 

You may not see yourself as the stereotypical control freak. You don't engineer your life and relationships to extreme degrees and creep everybody out in the process. Even so, you definitely want to manage some things closely — your money, your time, and certainly your reputation.

The problem for you, me, and marketers everywhere is the fact that the digital world has taken a tremendous amount of that control out of our hands. 

The power of social media, the mysteries of organic search, and the often-unquestioned plausibility of online business reviews mean that anyone with an ax to grind can trash us, or our business. 

This can be done anonymously, in public, with the potential to reach millions and millions of people who are ready to salivate over the dirty details.

And, if people start to really pile on, there’s often not a damn thing we can do about it. 

We can, however, take steps to prevent damage to our online reputations, or mitigate the fallout if negative reviews, blog posts, or social media posts begin to poison our digital lives.

Online reputation management: What's at stake

Shopify.com reports that the buying decisions of 93 percent of customers are influenced by online reviews. Eighty-four percent trust reviews as much as they trust recommendations from family or friends. Another 68 percent will read four or more reviews before making a purchasing decision.

Reviews also have major implications for search engine optimization. Consider this note from LocalSEOGuide.com’s Local SEO Ranking Factors report:

Reviews are obviously a driving factor of ranking in Google My Business pack results. The prominence of reviews isn’t particularly shocking, as it’s a way for Google to crowdsource ranking factors, it’s hard to spam, and the most problematic type of abuse is illegal.

It’s also something that let’s Google approximate online to offline ranking factors, as hot/trendy businesses are likely to skyrocket in terms of reviews before they are likely to kill it with traditional ranking factors. All of this means it’s something that is easier for them to trust then say, links.

At a high level, having a keyword you are trying to rank for, and a mention of a city you are working to rank in, in reviews has a high correlation with high ranking Google My Business results. 


Let’s break down the key points made in that very powerful paragraph:

  • Reviews drive GMB pack result rank
  • Reviews approximate offline behavior (a hot, new restaurant is likely to accumulate reviews much faster than backlinks, for example)
  • Reviews, therefore, are more trustworthy to Google than links
  • A keyword and city mention in a review has a high correlation to high-ranking GMB results

These insights are extremely important to businesses that may be laser-focused on linkbuilding — a tedious process given to gray-hat shortcuts that can lead to serious trouble with search engines. 

Links have long been seen as the gold standard of SERP dominance, and the Local SEO Guide is making the claim that reviews may, in fact, be equally, if not more, important to an SMB, especially when competing for local SERP position. 

That’s serious stuff.


A note about links

This is not to suggest that backlinks are not important. On the contrary, links remain critical ranking factors. 

Olga Andrienko of SEMrush.com writes that, in the company’s end-of-year state of search report, “...we found that the high search volume niche is extremely competitive, with top positions occupied by major players with the richest backlink portfolios. As confirmed by Google, a strong backlink portfolio is crucial for website rankings.”

Links aren’t going away. But, in the instance of SMBs, or businesses that rely heavily on local search results, review quality and quantity may be the most consequential factor in determining how and where a business ranks for local keywords. 

Links, content, website quality and myriad other SEO factors will also help determine rank, of course.


Why do people write reviews?

There are several reasons why a customer is driven to write a review, post in social, or otherwise comment on a business online. Tom Popomaronis, Senior Director, Product Innovation & Business Development at the Hawkins Group, shared a good list at Forbes.com:

  1. Brand transparency: Is there a sense that there’s real people behind a brand? That those people are open to conversation? That they step up when things go wrong and are available when things go right? The first and most basic step in online reputation management is allowing a customer to feel valued, heard, and part of something bigger.
  2. Social good: Causes are important to young people. Wow! This was likely hot news the first time some kid at Berkeley handed out a flyer on campus back in 1962.

    The 2017 Millennial Impact Report, however, notes that “past research has shown us that millennials engage with causes based on personal experiences and their passion in a particular issue. This notion, while still present to a degree, is being crowded out by millennials’ interest in large social issues — regardless of any direct benefit.”

    In other words, there is a growing sense that the new generation of  consumers want to interact with businesses they perceive as promoting equality, equity, and opportunity. If those factors are missing at your business — or, worse, seen to be egregiously violated — get ready to hear about it.
  3. Integrity. Is a brand honest? Can it be trusted? Does it have a trustworthy voice? Expect your B.S. to be called in the digital environment.
  4. Inspirational branding. People like brands that make them feel good. They also despise brands and campaigns that cynically try to evoke that inspirational feeling (see the Kendall Jenner Pepsi campaign, which only gets shittier with age).  



  5. Staff treatment and happiness. In the age of #MeToo and the gig economy, no one wants to feel like their purchasing dollars are supporting monsters or enabling exploitation. When a brand is perceived as evil, you watch it crumble. This goes for businesses large and small, whether its profiting off human misery or treating its customers like garbage — great ways to get a lot of negative social attention.

So you've been trolled: Responding to negativity as part of an online reputation management program

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure,” Teddy Roosevelt once declared, “than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

In other words, if you put yourself out there, you open yourself up to both glowing praise and vicious criticism. As a business, what is the response when you are socked with the latter?

The strategy that gets results? The 3 R’s — Respond, React, and Rebuild.

Respond

If someone leaves a terrible review, shares a devastating social media post, or pens a critically unfair article about your business, you can’t let it sit there. You need to get your voice into the conversation.

First of all, you need to know that it happened. 

While digital users aren’t particularly shy about calling a brand or business out by name, it’s still wise to invest in a reputation monitoring program that alerts you when your name or handle is referenced online. 

Whether it’s as simple a solution as free, automated Google Alerts, a modest investment in a platform like Hootsuite or Sprout Social, part of a comprehensive marketing automation program like Hubspot, or a full-on, enterprise-level tool like Sysomos or Cision, automating this process is a must.

So how do you you respond to a negative review or comment?

  • Do it quickly. Don’t wait two days to get around to a response. Answer within 15 minutes, if possible.
  • Be respectful. I don’t necessarily feel like you need to trip over yourself apologizing, especially if you don’t know the circumstances. However, a respectful “I’m sorry you had a bad experience” or “I want to help make this right” is a legitimate way to begin the interaction.
  • Backchannel ASAP. Get the conversation out of the public eye and get the details via Messenger, DM, email, or even an old-fashioned phone call. Expose your identity! Let the person know they are talking to a real person and that they can contact you for follow-up.
  • Set a course of action, and then do it. Determine what it takes to make the situation right. Come to an agreement with the customer about how to proceed. Then, and this sounds simple, actually do it. Nothing is more certain to infuriate an already-angry customer than a lot of flowery apologies and no action.

React

What caused the issue in the first place? A broken website? A lack of instructions? Poorly-trained employees? A loose cannon on your staff? A systemic issue that you never fully resolved reared its ugly head again? 

The negative feedback is a symptom, not the disease.

Rebuild

Once you know what’s wrong and take steps to solve the immediate issue, implement processes that ensure future success. 

This may be as simple as addressing a specific staff issue or updating a section on your website — or completely retraining a business unit.

“Ugh,” you say, “that sounds expensive, not to mention awful.” 

Maybe that’s true — but if one person is complaining, there’s a good chance you’ve heard those same complaints before. There’s also a good chance people are already avoiding your business because of this same kind of complaint.

Do you need a public relations program?

If your business is taking legitimate heat from the media, you likely need to invest in crisis communications and a long-term public relations program.

While there are elements of SEO, paid media, content marketing, and online reputation management in this kind of campaign, it’s going to require a more aggressive strategy to get your side of the story to as wide an audience as possible. You’ll need to consider hiring a public relations specialist or engaging a PR firm.


Online reputation management best practices

Like all things, managing an online reputation program is easier said than done. 

It takes an investment in time and resources that may feel frustrating at times, especially when you do not see the immediate fruits of your labor. 

Following best practices, however, out you on the safest ground for long-term success.

Maintain high web search visibility. 

A strong SEO program will buoy your online reputation. A credible organic search program will require you to optimize your website, build useful content to support key business goals, manage your presence on third-party directory and review sites, and — most importantly — play by all of the rules that search engines like Google prescribe. 

By its nature, a solid SEO program will proactively address several potential online reputation management concerns.

Maintain a strong social presence. 

A visible, credible, interesting social presence gives customers a good impression of your brand and also makes them feel comfortable coming to you when they have a question or a concern. 

Resolving problems quickly and effectively through social channels can also put out fires before they start, and give your fans and supporters an opportunity to rally to your defense when someone is making unreasonable demands or outlandish claims.

Build links. 

As mentioned way back at the beginning of this post, linkbuilding is still a critical task for online reputation management. 

White-hat linkbuilding happens when you create great content that people legitimately enjoy and want to share, which certainly enhances your credibility and reputation. 

Influencer outreach and relationship-building also help create the kind of organic partnerships and, dare we say, friendships that lead to both links and brand advocacy. 

Keep building those links, gang, but do it the right way.

Train your employees.

There are two fronts in this battle: first, you want to ensure that your customer service, marketing, and other customer-facing business units are well-versed in ways to defuse customer outrage both online and off. 

Second, you want employees who are adept enough at handling customers with respect and integrity to ensure that people aren’t walking away from the interaction feeling disrespected, cheated, or otherwise motivated to go online and say horrible things about your brand.

Training may seem difficult when you’re an SMB, or even when you’re a larger business moving at a hectic pace — but a few angry customers have the power to seriously damage your reputation if you allow an untrained employee to ruin too many experiences.

Reach out to reviewers. 

Both good and bad. 

If someone has great things to say about your business, follow up, say thank you, ask what else they can tell you about their interactions with your team. 

If bad, obviously you ant to solve the immediate problem as well as the long-term issue.

Online reputation management isn’t easy, but it can be rewarding. Keep your eyes open, your customers happy, your employees trained, and your response swift, and you're on the right track.