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Some elements of the Internet can’t be tamed, but can you really manage your reputation on search engines through SEO?
In a multi-media, multi-platform world, keeping a spotless reputation can be an uphill struggle. With tabloid hacks circulating for scandal, inquisitive bloggers getting undercover exclusives and media consumers increasingly wanting bigger, better content – any day can be a bad news day.
The Internet has proven to be a Godsend for PR agencies and a poisoned chalice for businesses, celebrities and other public figures. There is nowhere to hide. You can’t forcibly suppress free speech. And once something goes viral (particularly if it is embarrassing or damaging), there’s no stopping it.
When Bad News Goes Viral
Social media has given everybody with Internet access a voice. A single video can be seen thousands of times in hours; a process speeded up by bookmarking and link sharing on Twitter and Facebook. Even if you manage to silence traditional media criticism, you can’t stop bloggers and social networking activists. It’s a hashtag nightmare, hewn from the wider desire for scoops and scandal.
The social side of things is untameable. Whilst bloggers might be deterred by legal injunctions, libel laws and such like, you can’t sue a Facebook user for expressing personal opinion. This creates a problem. If you’ve been up to no good and are trying to cover your tracks, the cache-trail and impending social explosion can blow it out of all proportion – Trafigura and Carter-Ruck take note [see: Jan Moir, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and Reputation Management in the Twitter Age].
In most instances, trying to fight back will only serve to fuel the fire. Silence can also see you pilloried. In fact the only way to really counteract this trial by Twitter is to throw your hands up, admit mistakes were made and apologise. Even in this electronic age, a little genuine human emotion resonates with bloodthirsty hordes far more than a carefully planned counter strike.
Search Engine Sabotage
But of course it isn’t just about social media. With the search engines increasingly adding new page elements, speeding up the rate at which sites are indexed whilst still featuring the usual organic listings, this can provide an equally damaging PR battleground [see: The Changing Anatomy of a Google Search Page].
As with social networking profiles, a website domain can be registered by anybody. If that person has a particular axe to grind, woe betide their target. It’s bad enough that news stories can creep into your Google search page, but if your organic results start getting barracked too, suddenly you’re facing online ignominy.
So when PR fails, what takes its place? How can you protect your reputation when your organic Google rankings take a bashing? Step up SEO.
Using SEO to Improve Online Reputation – The Simon Cowell Factor
That’s right. If you want your search engine presence to be sparkling, you need to employ search specialists. They can help you to bury news and strengthen those positive remarks to leave you looking whiter than white.
This week it has been reported that perennial purveyor of vocal vulgarity Simon Cowell has been having a little bit of a character makeover. Not through an in-depth heart to heart, massive charitable effort or anything equally heart-warming, but through investment in SEO services.
Unflattering portrayals can be cleansed from the front page of Google. Whilst you can’t tamper with organic results per se, you can certainly help improve the strength of friendlier sites. Equally, when a negative news story breaks, it’s easy enough to counteract that with something a little more complimentary. A quick press release and suddenly the world hears what you want them to hear.
The Problem with Google Autofill
It’s not foolproof. There are numerous SERP elements to battle against, so burying everything would pose a significant problem. Plus, whilst you can get the first page of the search engine results to be free from hate sites, you can’t change Google’s search predictions. This is a particularly dicey area for PR.
Say I type in ‘Simon Cowell is…’ then I’d get a list of results as shown below:
Nothing overly flattering in there. Plus, as these predictions are generated as a consequence of genuine searches and content matching that query, eradicating your fear of owls isn’t easy. But this is a common enough problem and would require some pretty nifty and thorough PR work to influence – something Mel Gibson should probably consider.
But this same principle applies right across the board. You don’t have to be a high profile celebrity to have your reputation damaged online. Even small businesses can be tarnished as a consequence of criticism.
Building Bridges with Business
Perhaps you’ve received a bad review or had an irate customer start a forum posting about your company. Whether as a result of past mistakes or a genuine misunderstanding, this can be damaging.
When somebody searches for your brand, you want to be top of Google – that’s a given. But equally, you don’t want something appearing on the same page that is potentially damaging.
I searched for ‘We Buy Any Car’ on Google (inspired only by their radio advert, honestly). Anyway, as you’d expect webuyanycar.com is top of the Google search rankings. In fact they’re second too, with their valuation page getting a look in. With the top spot secure on PPC too, including four links, things are looking good.
But a casual observer might want to read on and see if there’s anything else. Further down the page they’ll find a couple of competitors, a derisory article in The Guardian, an expose on dodgy practices by sales staff from the Mirror, a damning set of user experiences on reviewcentre.com and even the Advertising Standards Authority explaining why they banned their advert (essentially for not advertising a service charge).
This can happen to any company of course. In this instance there’s plenty that could be buried by a little tactful SEO work. Trying not to be cynical, a few of the five star ratings on the reviewcentre site seem a little too glowing, with most referencing specific staff or locations from a guy called ‘Guest’ – who can say? Anyway, what this shows, if it has been artificially inflated of course, is that some efforts are being made to promote the company’s online profile.
Restoring Your Reputation
If you have suffered the same kind of issues and there are forum posts and negative reviews somewhere on the Internet, don’t turn a blind eye. Approach the reviewers and enquire what the problem was. If you can resolve it or at least apologise for any issues, you’d be surprised how positive an effect that can have.
Building profiles on popular social media sites can also help you to get a little bit of search traction. Their inherent strength will often see these appear high up on organic results. You can also create a section on your site dedicated to dealing with customer concerns if you have had issues in the past.
You can only bury so much though. Whether you’re Simon Cowell, webuyanycar.com or a Hollywood A-lister, there’s a fair chance that someone, somewhere has a beef with you. Thanks to social media and search engines, that one beef can soon multiply and start to impact your online reputation. You can either work to resolve that or work to bury it. Combing SEO and PR can help you achieve both.
By strengthening your site you can at least ensure you outrank the bulk of any negative press. From there you can submit frequent press releases and encourage engagement through social profiles. Basically you need to be looking to improve the visibility of good news, whilst at the same time lowering the bad.
So hubs, blogs or any other place that will host content that you can moderate are all ideal ways to limit negative influences and may even help you alter those pesky autofill issues in the process.