Your company's reputation is its most important asset. If it's tarnished, you can lose customers, sales, employees and partners.
That's not exactly breaking news, of course, but it's worth repeating. So many businesses don't pay full attention to their online reputation—how good (or bad) they look in Google searches.
The key to protecting your brand, according to online reputation management experts, is to be proactive, optimize your content appropriately, monitor your search results regularly, be ready to spring into action if something negative shows up and, above all, be realistic about the outcome of your efforts.
Here are 10 online reputation management tips to help your business protect its brand.
1. Optimize Your Site with Your Company Name.
Optimize several pages on your website using what's probably your most important keyword phrase—your company's name—advises Andy Beal, CEO of social media monitoring company Trackur.
Why? Google will likely see your site as the ultimate authority on your company. Authoritativeness on a topic is one of many important signals the search engine considers when matching content to a search query and then ranking that content among other results, Beal says. By properly optimizing more than one page for your company name, you'll help keep those pages at or near the top of search results. Not only does this give your site greater visibility in search results, it may also help push down not-so-positive content about your company that you can't control.
The best practice is to use your company name in important places such as the HTML title tag and URL (if possible), particularly on pages that describe your company, such as About Us or Contact Us.
Also, some companies refer to themselves in the first person on their websites, Beal notes&Mdash;"We build widgets that last" instead of "The Widget Company builds widgets that last." Using the third-person voice is a better option, he adds, because it reinforces your company name to the search engines.
2. Diversify Your Web Presence.
Your goal should be to proactively own as many slots in the Google top 10 search results for keywords you care about, says Don Sorenson, president of Big Blue Robot, which offers corporate online reputation management services. For one thing, it shows your companys dominance in that topic. For another, you'll have a better chance of keeping negative content about your company or its products out of the top 10.
"You'll never be able to just get rid of negative stuff you can't control," Sorenson says, citing examples such as bad Yelp reviews or negative newspaper articles. "But you can at least balance it with positive content you do control."
To achieve top 10 dominance, your Web presence should be spread out among your company's site, related blogs, and social media networks such as LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook Fan pages, YouTube and Twitter. Google's search engine technology views these social network sites as authoritative and trustworthy; both are important factors in how highly content on those sites is ranked.
Be realistic, though. "I've never seen a company own everything on the first page of Google results," Sorenson says. "The only way that might happen is if your company has a truly unique name and there's absolutely nothing else on the Web with that name in it." Even Apple—about as dominant a company as you can get—doesn't own all the top 10 results when you Google the word apple. Not surprisingly, however, all the top 10 results have something to do with the Cupertino company. None mention the fruit.
3. If You Have to Choose One Social Network, Make It LinkedIn.
Social media takes a lot of time and effort to manage. If you must limit your resources, focus on LinkedIn, advises Patrick Ambron, CEO and founder of Brand Yourself, an online reputation management service. LinkedIn profiles tend to rank higher than some other social media network content, and it's particularly important for B2B companies, as many people search on LinkedIn instead of Google for professional services.
For more on optimizing your LinkedIn profile, see LinkedIn marketing expert Nick Parham's tips in "10 Online Reputation Management Tips for Job Seekers."
4. Get Other Sites to Link to Yours with Anchor Text—But Don't Overdo It.
Anchor text is a hyperlinked word or phrase, such as online management tips for job seekers, that when clicked takes you to another Web page. Search engines use anchor text to determine the relevancy of the page being linked to. If several pages on authoritative, trustworthy sites link to the tips article using the above anchor text link, it helps that article rise in search result rankings for that phrase.
Of course, getting quality keyword-rich anchor text links from other sites pointing to yours is difficult, Beal says. Those sites are beyond your control, though perhaps not beyond your influence.
The best way is to simply ask others to link to you using keyword-rich anchor text relevant to your business. But don't ask everyone to link to your site using the same anchor text, Sorenson says. Google is wise to all the different ways people try to game the system and may demote your content for aggressive anchor-text practices.
"If 60 percent of your links all have the same anchor text, that's probably too much," he adds. Instead, try to create a diverse, natural link profile over time. Get links from multiple quality sites that use a variety of relevant keyword-rich anchor text links.
5. Proactively Monitor Your Search Results at Least Once a Month.
Google your company name at least once a month, Beal suggests. Do it much more frequently if you're a large company in the news fairly often. Set up Google Alerts for important keywords so you know as soon as possible when new content about you hits the Web.
Don't simply look at the first page of Google results, advises Beal. Even though the vast majority of search engine users don't go any further, you should always check pages two and three for negative content. Given how frequently search rankings change, that content could end up on page one overnight.
Keep an eye out for any content on the second or third page of results that might be negative, because it might work its way to the first page. Track what you see in a spreadsheet with columns for the URL, page title, status of the page (whether you own it, control it, or have some influence over it) and the sentiment (whether it is positive, negative or neutral).
6. To Counteract Negative Content, Contact Its Creator.
Even if you do monitor your results proactively, you might wake up one morning, Google your company, and find an unpleasant surprise. The bigger your company, the more likely you'll discover negative content mixed in with your top search results.
When that happens, immediately contact the blogger, reviewer or other person who created the content, Beal recommends. Ask if you can do anything to switch their sentiment to positive. If that doesn't work, leave a comment (when possible) to give your side of the story. Explain what you're doing or have done to make the situation right.
7. Pay Attention to Your Offline Reputation, Too.
If negative content about you becomes a trend, you need to understand why, Beal says. "Your reputation in the offline world will translate to the online world," he says. "Treat your customers and clients well, and encourage those who are happy with you to leave reviews on Yelp. Focus on your reputation in the offline world, and your online reputation will fix itself."
8. Send Out Optimized Press Releases on a Regular Basis.
Believe it or not, search-optimized press releases can rank highly in Google for relevant keyword searches, giving your company another opportunity to own a top Google slot. For instance, Sorenson posted a release on PRWeb that is optimized for the phrase corporate online reputation management. Even though the release was posted in April, it still ranked within the top five Google results for that phrase as of early August.
9. Pay Attention to Your Wikipedia Page.
Wikipedia entries about companies nearly always rank within the top five results for that company's name, says Beal. To see how it works, Google the names of well-known companies such as Apple, Cisco and IBM. In most cases, you won't have to look further than the first three or four search results to find its Wikipedia entry.
You can't control Wikipedia entries because anyone can edit them. You shouldn't get directly involved in your Wikipedia article, either; that's technically a conflict of interest, according to Wikipedia community guidelines. If there is negative or incorrect information on your company Wikipedia page, ask the Wiki community for suggestions on how to fix it.
10. Don't Expect Miracles.
It's so important to proactively own or at least influence top Google search results because it's extremely difficult to push down negative content when it surfaces. "One client of mine had seven negative results on the first page of Google," Sorenson says. "It took me a year and a half to get nothing but positive content about them on the first page."
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 +.