The communication and marketing channels we once relied on have changed dramatically since users made the Internet and search engines their platform of choice for finding information. Today, approximately 5.5 billion searches are performed on over 175 million search engines in the United States every month. Users are using the Internet to research everything. The web contains information from every source imaginable, including consumers themselves. While user generated content, also known as consumer generated media, has been around a long time, it went mainstream in 2005 (Hitwise). Nielsen BuzzMetrics estimated over 1.4 billion comments archived on the web in 2005, further estimating that user generated content on the web is growing at the rate of 30 percent annually. PewInternet & American Life Project estimated 44 percent of online consumers (more than 53 million adults) have created online content.

With all the self-publishing options on the web, nothing is sacred, including control over your brand. The multiple sources of user generated content published and communicated online can dramatically affect your company's reputation.

User Generated Content

The rise in user generated content has accelerated over the last few years, starting with discussion forums, blogs, vlogs, opinion postings and reviews, expanding into more areas every day. People have become very vocal in expressing opinions on the web.

The latest onslaught comes in the form of personal profiles posted on a variety of social networking sites like MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook and Friendster, to name a few. There are hundreds of social networking sites focused on every kind of interest imaginable, and the list is increasing at a rapid rate. If you can build a community around it, there is usually a social network to be found.

Bloggers have influenced the political and business sectors to the point where they are now considered part of the mainstream news media. Blogging was enabled by RSS (Really Simple Syndication), an XML-based format for content distribution that allows anyone to easily create and publish content without knowledge of HTML. Once content is created, it can be updated and aggregated in real time. Blogs have become a powerful business communication and marketing tool with the power to influence multitudes via the web.

Rise of Consumer Voice

The user generated content found on blogs and social networking sites is exerting influence in the business world and beyond. While marketers view this media as a vehicle for advertising products and services, there can be pros and cons because consumer opinion cannot really be controlled.

User generated content has changed the way some businesses communicate and market to consumers. One of the benefits for marketers is the opportunity to learn what consumers think about their products for future improvements. Marketers can identify trends, spot service issues and gain competitive intelligence to help in decision making. UGC can create lavish praise or negative publicity if consumers attack the brand.

Danger of Negative Attacks

The Chevy Tahoe campaign reported by The New York Times ("Chevy Tries a Write-Your-Own Ad Approach and the Pot Shots Fly") illustrates both the positive and negative aspects of a UGC marketing campaign. Chevy posted a web site inviting visitors to use the video clips and music provided by Chevy to create their own ad copy. Chevy's hope was that visitors would create a word of mouth campaign by distributing all these great videos around the web. At first, it looked like this backfired because the campaign turned into a bashing contest with video captions like "$70 to fill up the tank, which will last less than 400 miles. Chevy Tahoe." The negative ads got more press coverage than the positive ones. However, in the end, the campaign created a lot of buzz, and Chevy Tahoe got a lot of publicity.

In other instances, sites have been created for the sole purpose of publishing negative information about brands. If you go to Google and search for Coke, you will see a listing for Killer Coke, a site alleging that Coca-Cola bottling plant managers in Colombia, South America encourage the murder of union members. The site lists names and dates of the murders and displays photos. It solicits help in stopping the murder, kidnapping and torture of union leaders and organizers. This obviously cannot be good for Coke, especially in Columbia.

These are just two examples, but there are many more for companies from Walmart to Paypal to Google. This is why reputation management has become necessary for all brands. As consumers continue to satisfy their informational needs through online research, it becomes necessary for organizations to know what people are saying about their company and its products and/or services.

Identifying Brand Attacks

It is important to become aware of how you are being portrayed online. There are two options for doing this. You can assign someone to monitor incidents of company mentions on the web, or you can hire an outside reputation management vendor.

To handle reputation management in house, start by requesting Google Alerts and Yahoo Alerts. Alerts will be delivered to you via email on topics you select (including mentions of your name, industry, company products, services, etc.) every time a new mention of one of your terms appears in Google News or Yahoo News. These alerts can help you monitor a developing story, keep you current on competitors and help you keep tabs on various issues posted on the web. You can find a lot of user generated content in Google Blog Search, Yahoo News Search (includes blogs) and the specialty blog search engines such as Technorati, Feedster or Sphere.

You might also run searches on industry specific portals periodically. For instance, those in the search marketing industry could try Search Engine Watch or SEMPO. If you find information damaging to your brand, don't wait - take defensive action as soon as possible.

Defending Against Brand Attacks

Your first line of defense is to meet the criticism head on with a public relations campaign, well-conceived email campaign or blog response. Use whichever outlet you feel best enables you to address the highlighted concern, explain your company's stance, and either dispels the criticism or fixes it. Arguments without solutions are generally a bad idea. If you must defend your brand, respond promptly and directly. It pays to investigate the validity of a negative claim. Remember the incident about a person finding a finger in the chili at Wendy's? Rather than ignore the complaint, Wendy's actively pursued clues surrounding the incident by offering a substantial reward for information. Ultimately, the claim was exposed as an insurance scam.

Using SEO for Preventative Reputation Management

Search engine optimization can be used as a tool to promote your company's brand while insulating it from potential harm. An excellent long-term defense that is preventive in nature is to ensure that your brand is well positioned with favorable rankings in both the organic and sponsored sections of search engines. If you own multiple brands for the same company, optimize them all before you need them.

An added bonus of this strategy is that it makes search engine marketing a component of your reputation management strategy, which can help offset your marketing costs. When you appear in the natural section of search results, your well-crafted title and description on the top pages create a powerful, positive impression on users' perception of your brand. This perception is reinforced when you also appear in the sponsored section of search results.

Era of Online Reputation Management

The dynamics of how well your brand succeeds online can change in a New York minute. A single post to a blog can start an avalanche that can bury your brand if you are not prepared to deal with the consequences of user generated content. Set up a system to monitor your reputation online. Control will go to those who invest in preventive and discovery tactics consistently over the long term. When it comes to your brand, reputation is everything.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

December 6, 2006

Bruce Clay is president of Bruce Clay, Inc. Since 1996, has been one of the foremost search engine optimization Web destinations. Services include: tool subscriptions, training classes, site assessments, consulting services, and full-service projects. Areas covered are SEO, PPC, Analytics, e-mail, ad programs, and consulting.

Search Engine Guide > Bruce Clay > Protecting Your Brand's Reputation Online