You have lots of happy customers, but they don't feel any particular need to review your product or service online. Meanwhile, a few dissatisfied customers waste no time trashing you on Yelp, Citysearch, TripAdvisor, Twitter or any other forum they can think of.
Because those sites have strong authority with the search engines, the negative feedback is likely to show up on the first search results page for your company name. The net effect: Even though you largely have a happy customer base, suddenly you have an online reputation challenge.
It's something many businesses have experienced. Here are three examples of businesses that faced such challenges, as told by the online reputation management experts who helped them bounce back. (The experts we interviewed didn't disclose details about their clients' identities.)
Online Reputation Management Nightmare #1: CEO Gets Ill-Timed Bonus
The situation: The CEO of a publicly traded company received an $11 million bonus around the same time that the company reported disappointing earnings and its stock was being hammered. Not surprisingly, a leading national newspaper reported on the situation. The article showed up prominently in the executive's top 10 search results and remained there for months, says Brad Beiter, vice president of SEO strategy and growth for search marketing firm Performics. Beiter spoke during a fall 2012 Online Marketing Summit session on online reputation management.
Search engines such as Google tend to give leading national newspapers and other prominent media sites high authority and trust. Thus, an unflattering article from a top media site poses a particularly difficult online reputation challenge, since such articles often rank highly for months or even years.
The solution: On the CEO's company website, Performics optimized content that would rank highly for the CEO's name, such as a detailed leadership bio. In addition, Performics optimized profiles for the executive on high-authority sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube and linked them to the CEO's corporate bio. Finally, Performics created and promoted across the Internet new content about the executive's nonprofit work to balance the negative impression from the newspaper article.
The result: Within six months, the newspaper article sank from No. 3 on Google to No. 18.
The takeaway: "Make sure the online assets you control are ranking well for your name," especially on social media networks, Beiter advises. Link those accounts to an online bio or other content "hub" that's also optimized for your name. Distribute favorable content about you around the Internet to balance anything negative that exists or may show up later.
Online Reputation Management Nightmare #2: Negative Reviews
The situation: An automotive company with multiple locations had plenty of happy customers. Even so, a few disgruntled customers at different locations left negative comments about the company on Yelp and other review sites. As a result, the automotive company felt its online reputation was out of alignment with its offline reputation, which was largely positive.
The solution: The automotive company turned to online reputation management firm Reputation.com for help, says Brent Franson, vice president of sales. A three-pronged reputation management trial followed, running for six weeks in October and November 2012.
To begin, managers at select locations received access to Reputation.com's monitoring platform, reporting alerts and weekly status updates to gain insight into and proactively monitor feedback for their particular locations. (There was a control group of locations excluded from the reputation management trial, Franson says, as a way to gauge the project's effectiveness.)
The next step was to ask recent customers of the select locations for their feedback. "We told customers how much online reputation matters," Franson explains, "and how we would appreciate their honest feedback on the location they visited. We also suggested places for them to leave their reviews," including Yelp, Google and Citysearch.
The third piece of the plan was to respond to all reviews for the locations involved in the trial. "If there was a negative review, we asked the customer how we could solve the problem they experienced. For positive reviews, we thanked the customer," Franson says. "Either way, we wanted to show customers how important their feedback is."
The result: For the six weeks leading up to the trial, the automotive company averaged just more than two online reviews for each location that was selected for the trial. During the six weeks of the trial, the average jumped to more than eight online reviews for each location involved in the trial. The control group locations saw no change.
Negative reviews as a percentage of total reviews changed dramatically, according to Franson. In the six weeks before the trial, 40 percent of all reviews posted for the locations in the trial were negative. During the trial, only 19 percent of reviews for those locations were negative. Again, there was no measurable change for locations in the control group.
The takeaway: "Proactively communicate to customers that your online reputation matters, and that their honest, genuine feedback is important to you," Franson says. "Encourage them to leave reviews for you online. This will help put your online reputation more in line with your offline one. You shouldn't be worried about getting too many negative reviews, unless you're treating customers badly. Also, a five-star rating for a business looks suspicious to most people, while a 4.5-star rating looks more trustworthy."
Online Reputation Management Nightmare #3: Showing Up on RipOff Report
The situation: A few years ago, when you did a Google search on the name of a particular home security company, seven of the first 10 results were negative—including an unflattering video, article, forum comments and complaints on RipOff Report, a consumer complaint site.
"The company had done tens of thousands of home security installations and had a satisfied client base, says Don Sorenson, an online reputation management expert and president of Big Blue Robot LLC. "But like any business, once in a while [it] had an unhappy customer who was highly vocal. Unfortunately, that negative online content was impacting sales."
The solution: Sorenson worked with his client to counter the negative search results with positive content, which included YouTube videos about the company. The videos were keyword-optimized with the home security company's name in the video titles and descriptions.
In addition, Sorenson worked to attract links from other websites to the YouTube clips. This helped the videos rise in search result rankings. "A YouTube channel for a company can be extremely useful for reputation management, especially when all the videos are tagged properly," he says.
In a few cases, Sorenson contacted disgruntled bloggers or forum members and successfully convinced them to reconsider their negative stance toward the home security company. Overall, though, he says, "the solution was to push up positive stuff in the search results as a way to push down the negative."
The result: It took about one year to purge all the negative content about the company from its first page of search results, Sorenson says. He's posted before and after snapshots of the company's online reputation management results on the Big Blue Robot website.
The takeaway: Along with YouTube, Sorenson says companies should develop a strong presence on LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook.
Asking business partners for positive mentions about you on their website is another proactive way to "own" more of your company's search results.
Sorenson also recommends issuing press releases that are optimized for the company name and distributed on PRWeb, PR Newswire or Business Wire. PRWeb releases, for example, get picked up by major news outlets such as SFGate.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Many times, the release on the media site will rank more highly than the same release on the PR website," he says.
Due to recent Google algorithm changes, having positive content on an exact-match domain such as yourcompanyname.com isn't as likely as it once was to shoot to the top of search engine results for your company name and stay there, Sorenson adds. However, it's still worth owning and using domains with your company name in them.
Balance May Be the Best You Can Achieve
Anyone embarking on an online reputation management project should set realistic expectations, cautions Andy Beal, CEO of social media monitoring company Trackur.
"If something truly negative gets out and is reported on a lot, you're not going to fully expunge it from your results," Beal says. "But with time and effort, you can balance out the negative impressions in a Google search with positive content."
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.