Admit it, you've typed your own name into a search engine at least once. Chances are, you found a few mentions of yourself from a local paper, Internet message board or a friend's Web site. You may have even found yourself being discussed by people that you don't even know. According to an article in USA Today "ego surfing" is becoming a part of the daily routine for the CEOs of some of America's top companies.

Consumers have few options available to them when they feel they've been wronged by a business. Sure, there's the option of contacting the Better Business Bureau or their state's Attorney General's Office, but these complaints rarely result in a satisfactory outcome for the consumer. With blogs and online discussion forums growing increasingly popular, consumers are often taking their complaints to the Internet in order to share them with anyone willing to listen.

But is it only large businesses and well known executives that need to be concerned about what's being said about them online? Small businesses and local chains often have the same problems pleasing customers that Fortune 500 companies do, and small businesses often don't have the staffing power to handle customer service complaints. With more and more individuals conducting locally based searches to find businesses in their area, it's becoming essential that small business owners take the time to find out what's being said about them online.

A report released by The Kelsey Group revealed that roughly a quarter of all commercial searches are for local companies and that 44% of survey respondents claimed they were conducting more commercial searches than they had in the previous year. More than half of the individuals interviewed felt that online search engines were a better source of purchasing information than Yellow Pages, newspapers and magazines. This data supports the idea that locally based businesses will need to put more time and effort toward not only their online marketing, but also toward online PR.

I've had my opinion about a company swayed by an online search several times. I always visit the hotel review sites when I'm planning a trip so that I can read reviews about a specific property. Often, the comments that I find on these boards are enough to sway me to one hotel over another. If the managers of the hotels would take the time to search for their property online, they might find some issues that need to be dealt with, or at least give themselves an opportunity to respond to accusations. I also tend to type the name of a restaurant into Google before heading there for the first time. Even with local joints here in Columbus, Ohio, I can almost always find a few reviews or comments made by bloggers and folks on message boards. In several cases, I've found multiple complaints about a specific waiter or waitress, making me wonder if the manager might not be able to solve the problem if they took the time to find out it existed.

Small businesses are tight on resources, which is understandable, but the few minutes it takes to run a quick search for your name or your business on a search engine could end up giving you the chance to address a problem that you never knew existed. Programs like Google Alerts can even be used to notify you whenever a new page shows up in the index that mentions your company. This gives you a chance to turn the matter over to your PR department and have it promptly addressed.

Take your cue from the larger companies that have more experience in this area. Procter and Gamble has issued multiple press releases to counter email hoaxes that claim they support the Church of Satan. Many restaurant chains solicit feedback from subscribers to their Web sites. Be proactive in dealing with situations that arise online. If you find complaints about a specific employee, take the time to find out what happened and see what you can do to remedy it. If an online reviewer had a bad experience, contact them about it and ask what you could have done better, offer up a gift certificate to an unhappy blogger as an act of goodwill, consider issuing a press release that explains an unpopular corporate position on an issue.

Local search isn't going to go away, it's only going to grow. Small business owners that embrace the Web as a new way to do business and that take the time to understand how to use it to their benefit will find themselves with an advantage over their competitors. Take the time to search for your name or your business name online, and don't think of it as vain, think of it as an investment in your business.

Discuss your experience with ego surfing and online public relations in the Small Business Ideas forum.
January 3, 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 > Small Businesses May Benefit from Ego Surfing