I recently got a question from a company with a problem. They have a history of not-so-sterling treatment of customers during the sales process (think used-car dealer approach), which they've used throughout the history of the company. For years, the company has been successful, despite customer complaints, but now they are running into a snag. The company's online reputation is not good, and they are worried that it is starting to affect their sales. They asked if I could help them eliminate the negative results that are popping up about them in search.
Many people will purport to help your company, if it's in this situation. Usually, they'll try to have the review sites remove the offending opinions because they are inaccurate. Sometimes that can work, but it helps a lot if those opinions truly are inaccurate. In this case, they aren't. If the charges are true and can't be removed, or if you're bedeviled by an entire hate site (YourSiteSucks.com), you need to get those results off the search page completely.
The best way to do that is to accentuate the positive, which is actually good advice whether you have a reputation problem or not. Search engines aren't necessarily drawn to negative news--they show the sites that seem to have the most attention, which can often be negative sites, but not always. You can use social media to create your own positive presence, but to do so, you need to have a story that people are interested in.
So, you can tell stories about the good things that your business does for the public and for your clients. And you can put out lots of helpful information that is not trying to sell something. You might think of many such stories, but you might want to start with the most important one: "We used to take a used car approach and we realize that's wrong and we have cleaned up our act."
But that's the hard part, right? First off, you need to be willing to admit to what happened publicly (and more importantly) truly want to change. If you're willing to be up front about that, it could definitely get some social media traction, but I've found it is the rare business with a checkered past that actually steps up to being open, honest, and willing to make amends for the past. If your company just sees online reputation management as one more thing to manipulate to succeed, I'd recommend that you not even try, because it is more likely to backfire and make things even worse in the long run.
If you are willing to take this step of changing your practices and making amends for the past, then you are in a much stronger position to respond to the negative reviews: "We're very sorry that this happened to you. We wish we could say that this was an isolated incident, but the truth is that we made a number of mistakes in our sales approach back then that caused problems not only for you but for others, which we sincerely regret. Please reach out to us so we can make this right. In the meantime, we have completely overhauled our sales approach so that this will not happen to anyone else, but we would still like to make things right with you and with others who had problems in the past. Again, we are sorry for what happened and we'd love it if you would contact us at 1-800-WE-R-SORRY to let us know what we can do to set things right."
This is a dangerous message because you might get unhappy customers coming out of the woodwork, but one that will leave a very different impression to anyone who sees that site than the one they get from seeing it now. If the company is truly ready to make amends and move on, this is the most effective approach with the sites that have dated negative information.
But to me, the most important part is the hardest part. You have to truly want to change the way you do business. If improving your online reputation is just another quick-fix manipulation tactic rather than a real "heart change" for your business, it will inevitably backfire, and the reviews you then get will make the ones you hate now pale in comparison. Whatever short-run success you might get by manipulating things will make it even harder to come back from when the backlash happens. because you can only fake sincerity once.
Originally posted on Biznology Blog.
Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, Web personalization, and Web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.
Mike's previous appearances include ClickZ Live, RKG Summit, Ticket Summit, Webdagene, the CiTE conference, and the Forrester Marketing Conference.
Mike also founded and writes for the Biznology newsletter and blog, is the co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc., and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.
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