Imagine that you've just left a business meeting with a potential client. You've pitched your services, impressed them with your portfolio and given them a competitive pricing bid. You've all but sealed the deal and are confident that with a follow-up call, you'll have them signing the paperwork and faxing the contract over to your office.

Now imagine that you are the client. After a great meeting and a proposal that sounds great, you decide to run a quick search online for the company that just pitched you. You run their name through Google or Yahoo! and there, just under the company's web site is a link to a message board. You click the link and find a posting by a disgruntled customer that claims to have had a bad experience with the company you are considering hiring. Is that search result going to taint your opinion of the company you were ready to sign a contract with? Chances are high that it will.

Where did that forum post come from? Is it a legitimate complaint? Is it a competitor posting to taint your name? Or was it one of those cases where you've had to fire a difficult client and they've decided to seek revenge? Anyone in the business world has had a bad experience with a client, co-worker, or even an employer at some point in their life. The difference today is that rather than resulting in a bit of gossip around the office, that type of run in could now result in search engine results that could haunt you for the next several years of your professional life.

Take the time to search for some of the major brands and look at the search results.

Coca-cola - the tenth result is for a site claiming that Coca-cola is involved in union disputes in Columbia that have led to several murders.

McDonalds - the third listing is for an anti-McDonald's site that features news stories, campaigns and commentary against the popular fast food joint.

Abercrombie & Fitch - again, the third listing is an anti-A&F site promoting a boycott of the company due to their sales of kid-sized thongs.

That doesn't even consider some of the more controversial companies like Enron, Halliburton and Martha Stewart Living.

As the world shifts more and more focus toward online research, the importance of knowing what other people are saying about your company increases exponentially. These problems aren't limited to big business either. With consumer-driven review sites like Amazon, TripAdvisor and the new Yahoo! Local populated with reviews from customers, it's more important than ever for even small businesses to keep an eye on their online reputation.

Even beyond review sites, RSS feeds and blog aggregators and making it easier than ever for individuals to share their thoughts and experiences with the world. With tens of thousands of blogs going online daily, businesses can no longer afford to ignore the comments of their customers. A disgruntled shopper that could have shared their anger with family and friends ten years ago now has the ability to publish their experience for the entire world to see.

So what steps do you need to take to make sure that you're aware of how you are being portrayed online? First, you need to learn to keep an eye on mentions of your company. Here are a few great services worth looking into:

Search Engine Alerts - Setup alerts with your company name, any recognized staff members, or any products that you wish to track. The engines will send you a notification whenever a new mention of your terms shows up in their index. Both Yahoo! and Google offer alerts.

Blog Search Engines - Search engines that work to index blogs are a great place to run searches for yourself and your business. Daypop, Feedster and Technorati are great search engines for checking out the latest posts by bloggers.

Beyond that, stopping in once a month or so to run searches on the sites that are specific to your industry is a good idea.

The question is, once you find negative comments, what do you do about them? Basically, you treat them the same way that you would treat any other PR issue. Look into the complaint, find out if its something that you can fix. If you can, then fix it. If you can't, then address it. Add a page to your site that links to the complaint and explain your side of the story, or that at least addresses it.

Think of Wendy's response to the recent "finger in the chili" incident. Rather than trying to brush the incident off, Wendy's faced it head-on, offering up a reward for information about the finger, posting a statement on their web site, and eventually offering up free Frosties to everyone just to say "thanks" for sticking by the chain.

Online reputation management is the same as any type of reputation management, once you know how to keep an eye out for things that need managed.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
August 23, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Online Reputation Management, Are You Doing It?