When Words Can Hurt

Ten years ago, an unhappy customer could write a strongly worded letter to customer service. If the customer was lucky, he or she might secure a freebie. In the worst-case scenario, a company might be unable to resolve the complaint, and the customer could write a letter to the Better Business Bureau and encourage friends to boycott the business.

The company’s bottom line most likely would have been unaffected.

Today’s unhappy customers can blast negative comments using online review sites, rally virtual mobs of cohorts via Facebook and Twitter, and cause product sales to tumble.

Consider Netflix. When the company announced in July that it would increase its rates by nearly $6 a month, a flurry of unhappy Netflix customers started tweeting and posting comments on the company’s Facebook wall.

These unhappy people caught the attention of customers who otherwise would have paid little attention to the rate change. Within hours, throngs of customers were attacking Netflix’s decision publicly. Soon, Netflix’s rate change received major national media coverage.

Netflix did not embark on an online reputation management campaign, and in just a little more than three months (July 13 to October 25, 2011) Netflix stock dropped from $300 a share to $77.37. ABC News reported that Netflix lost 810,000 customers during this time frame.

Netflix learned an important lesson: Today, companies, brands, products and executives are vulnerable and on display. Businesses – particularly those with a heavy online presence – cannot afford to overlook the importance of managing their online reputations.

Yet too many businesses do not understand how to harness the power of online reputation management tools, and the results can be devastating.

For instance, when a long – or short-form infomercial or spot appears on television, measurement tools such as Google Insights and Google Analytics show that more than half of viewers will Google the product’s name before making a buying decision.

The Google Heat Map shows that if a negative review appears in the first or second spot of a search result, about 50 percent of potential customers may decide not to buy the product. If the negative review appears in the top half of page one, sales can erode by about 30 percent. When a negative mention is pushed to spot eight, companies may lose only about 10 percent of sales. And since only a small percentage of people ever visit page two of a search result, the problem is virtually eliminated if the first page is “clean”, meaning it is free of negative information.

Some speculation exists in these statistics, but we know one thing for sure: Sales start to crumble fast if page one of a search result isn’t pristine.

Unfortunately, a competitor, rogue affiliate or upset customer can easily cause serious harm. Because complaint and review sites like Ripoff Report and Yelp have high page rankings and are optimized to catch a search engine’s attention, they tend to dominate search results. These reviews appear high on the page unless a company has intentionally fought back with an online reputation management campaign.

A properly structured campaign allows a company to monitor and manage a product or brand both proactively and reactively.

Let’s take a look at two real examples:

A direct response marketer was losing deals because an FTC lawsuit surfaced on page one when his name was googled by inventors and potential business partners. The marketer reacted by flooding the internet with positive mentions of his name. Within about five months, the FTC press release was pushed all the way back to page four. He accomplished this by generating online context, bookmarking positive mentions of the company, optimizing all content so that is was search-engine friendly, building links to positive mentions of his name, deploying a blog and microsite, and accepting all opportunities for media coverage.

Managing an online reputation is important from a proactive perspective as well. Another direct response marketing company was thrilled when its short-form commercial tested well, but it knew that consumer complaints and rogue affiliates would soon appear high-up on search engine results for the product name. Knowing the company needed to act swiftly, the marketer engaged in an aggressive proactive reputation management campaign to combat any negative mentions that MIGHT SURFACE. The context domination approach prevented page-one complaints, which could have eroded sales.

Today, the product is being sold at Walgreens, Target, CVS and other prominent retailers. Pages one and two of Google, Yahoo and Bing are clean.

So what should you do to manage your online reputation? Here are five things every company can do to dominate page one of search results.

1. Leverage the power of social media

Contrary to popular belief, social media is not limited to social networking sites. Though social media does include Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, it also includes YouTube, blogs of all variety social bookmarking sites, review sites and business directories.
These channels are powerful because the algorithm that determines search ranking puts social media at the top of the food chain. When a consumer googles a product, brand, person or company, some form of social media appears on the first page of the results 90 to 100 percent of the time.

Companies can leverage the power of social media to promote their company by:

  • Building social networking profiles on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
  • Regularly updating, monitoring and filtering these profiles.
  • Creating incentives for customers to write positive reviews on sites such as Yelp.
  • Sending samples of products to bloggers; asking them for reviews; conducting blog giveaways and contests.
  • Creating blogs that disseminate information about product’s features.
  • Producing/ editing video contests.
  • Creating a CEO or company blog.

Of course, any information disseminated on the internet must also be optimized to catch the attention of search engines. You can build and distribute all the content you want, but no one will see it unless it is keyword-rich and search-engine optimized.

2. Engage in online public relations to build content and dominate search results.

Media outlets update their content regularly, and media websites attract a lot of traffic, so they are considered authoritative by Google and will appear high in search results. If your company has an opportunity to engage in public relations, take it!
Blogs, newspapers, magazines, television stations and radio shows all produce online context. Using SEO strategies, you can then promote the news coverage and syndicate on your own social networking sites and blogs, which can cause the original article to appear on page one of search result.

3. Proactively build and syndicate content.

Creating, summarizing and syndicating any and all positive content about your company, product or name can help bump an original source to page one. Your company executives can:

  • Create a company blog that exists separate from the corporate domain. Update the blog regularly with fresh keyword-rich content.
  • Submit guest articles to relevant industry blogs and publications. Be sure to provide “link juice” to the articles by linking to them from your own blog and social networking site. (Google considers articles that have a lot of incoming links to be more authoritative than those with only a few incoming links.)
  • Summarize any press releases, news stories or blog reviews of your product or company. Automatically syndicate these across your social networking sites and your blog, linking to the original source.

4. Monitor the online conversation.

Keeping an ear on the online conversation allows you to strike back with an aggressive reputation-management campaign should any negative information appear. While many companies offer tools at a cost, a company can take basic preemptive measures without incurring the expense.

  • First, subscribe to Google Alerts, a service that will notify you anytime your search terms are mentioned online. If your company or product is receiving thousands of mentions an hour, you might need a more sophisticated system. If your company is not being talked about that often, Google Alerts can allow you to monitor the online conversation without too much hassle.
  • Search your product, company, brand or name weekly on Twitter and the top search engines. Look carefully at the first few pages of search results.
  • Immediately hire an online reputation expert if you have a negative mention on page one of a search result or if you start noticing a trend in negative mentions.
  • Remember, never click on negative articles or reviews. This will only increase the ranking of these sites.

5. Learn and apply the basics of search engine optimization so you can promote positive mentions of your company, brand, product or name.

Search engine optimization is complex and ever changing. Entire companies packed with tech experts analyze Google trends and evaluate the algorithm that determines how and why certain key phrases rank. If your company needs major damage control, a do-it-yourself mentality about SEO is probably insufficient. But if you want to proactively dominate page one as a preemptive measure, here are a few things you can do without engaging a professional:

  • Include your search term in headlines, and ask anyone else posting positive reviews to do the same. Also include the search term a few times within the article.
  • Familiarize yourself with social bookmarking sites, and bookmark all the content you develop, as well as positive mentions posted by other sources.
  • When linking, always use your search terms as the anchor text. For instance, instead of hyperlinking “click here” hyperlink your company’s name. This allows Google to see the association between a page and a search term.
  • Title and tag your company’s website, images and videos with your search terms. Instead of using page titles like “home” “about”, or “contact”, consider using phrases that specifically describe your business, products or services. If you wish to use your brand’s name in the title, use it at the end of the title tag instead of the beginning.
  • Same goes for videos and images. Use the search term for tags, title and alt-tags.
  • When posting a video on YouTube, include channel, title and keyword. Then link to it from your other sites.
  • Deliver “link juice” to sites you want to promote. If a blogger posts a positive review or a media outlet reports on your product, be sure to link to the articles from your social networking sites (including relevant blogs), your own blog and your company’s website. This will allow the original source to appear higher in search results.

Finally, a word of caution: Never engage in unethical or “black hat” tactics. Google’s algorithm is clever; if you try to trick it. Google can counter your efforts by pushing even your own website to page three or four of a search result. Google penalizes companies for keyword cramming, the practice of stuffing a search term as many times as possible into an article, and “link farming”, the practice of selling or exchanging links with irrelevant sites so as to artificially bump up search terms.

Interact Marketing