Online Reputation Management Basics for Local and Small Businesses

If you run a business, you already know the importance of word-of-mouth. If you are lucky, you have a decent number of regular customers. In time, these customers tend to recommend friends to your business — each of whom might become a new regular. A good online reputation is just as beneficial as a good reputation in the physical world. A good reputation will send more visitors to your website, and thus more potential visitors to your place of business. A good reputation can be even more important if you operate solely in the virtual space, as a reputation may be all you have to recommend you over a competitor. A good reputation is a key in building trust, and thus something that you must spend time cultivating in order to trade upon.

A bad reputation, on the other hand, can be catastrophic. Unlike a good online reputation, you have to do very little to create a bad reputation. A single bad review or a dissatisfied customer can be enough to tank your reputation in the online sphere. In the real world, you can do a great deal of work to repair your reputation — you can speak to customers, do public relations work or even address the issue in your community. Online, though, a single harmful comment can spread like wildfire, cementing a bad reputation for your business in the minds of millions who have never met you. This reputation will impact not only your current earnings, but your earnings in the future. One only needs to take a look at some of the major review sites on the web to see how many negative reviews hang around for years. One night of bad service or one shipping issue can quickly become something that you have to deal with on a regular basis. The most unfortunate thing about getting a bad reputation online is that you may not even know about it until it is too late — things tend to spiral out of control online, and there is little that you can do to address problems when you are not vigilant.

What is Online Reputation Management?

Given the benefits of having a good online reputation and the very real drawbacks of having a poor reputation, it is only logical that processes would spring up to help insure that businesses do not get a bad reputation on the web. The process by which an individual or business manages his reputation online is called only reputation management. This process is often complex, dealing with issues as varied as customer satisfaction, search engine optimization, brand management and public relations. This process is growing in importance every day, especially as more money is exchanged online. Without proper reputation management, you can see a small mistake — or a malicious act — ruin your business before you have time to react. Fortunately, it is possible to maintain one’s reputation while conducting business as usual in the office.

How to manage your online reputation

Managing an online reputation can be broken into a few subsections. One must deal with customer reviews (review sites), work to make sure the company controls its own image (brand management), deal with the channels through which individuals interact with company news (SEO) and learn how to track down sources of information that do not align with the company’s message (maintenance). Each step is equal in importance, and must be maintained. If you falter when it comes to online reputation management, the consequences can be severe. There have been many businesses that have fallen prey to bad online word-of-mouth, and many which have never recovered. If you do not want to share in the same fate, you should consider addressing each of the issues listed below.

Review Sites

Review sites play an important role in online reputation management. Sites like Yelp, Google+ Local and even the Better Business Bureau give customers a chance to say a few words about your company. Unfortunately, there are no checks to make sure that the information posted is actually valid. An individual who has been evicted from an apartment for failure to pay rent might leave reviews that complain about the housing situation at the complex, for example, and these reviews will sit as valid with most who read them.

To deal with review sites, one must undertake a few different approaches. One can directly contact the impacted individual, if he or she posted with his or her real contact information. Settling a customer’s concern can often lead to a customer removing a review or changing it to a positive review. If the customer leaves the review anonymously, you can always post information on the review site yourself explaining the situation — though this does not always have a positive impact. If you know for a fact that a review was left maliciously, you can even try to contact the review site discretely to have it reviewed. The latter option is difficult, and can result in negative publicity if over-used. It is, however, a viable option of last resort.

Brand Management

It is incredibly important to protect your brand online. If individuals are making use of your copyrights or trademarks online, you must work quickly to protect your brand. Working with a lawyer to send takedown notices is always the best way to go about the process, even if it seems heavy-handed. Some sites, like Youtube, will also allow you to file copyright complaints directly with the hosting site, allowing you to remove the content without having to deal with the individual infringing upon your intellectual property. Of course, brand management is about more than just dealing with intellectual property laws — it is also about making sure that you remain in charge of your company’s public face. This means that you need to claim public profiles that would seem to be related to your company. Make sure that you register your company’s name on various social media platforms (especially Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn) and that you register your own domain name. When customers see something with your company’s name on it, they will assume that communications are official. As such, you need to make sure that you are in charge of that flow of information.

SEO

Search engine optimization is also an important tool for brand management and online reputation management. SEO is essentially the process of helping your business’ website rank highly on a user’s search. SEO is an involved process that involves linking to other sites, making use of keywords and designing a site to be user-friendly, among other things. What is important, though, is that you follow the industry standards to make sure that your site is one of the first hits when a user searches for your business. You should spend time cultivating good links to other related sites, especially local chambers of commerce or authorities in your field. At the same time, a good reputation management policy is to be careful of who links to you — there are tools that can help you to find these backlinks, which will in turn allow you to find out if the sites of others are causing your site to rank poorly online. SEO is a major part of reputation management, especially for those who want to control their company’s flow of information.

As a note, SEO can also be used to cause off-message content to drop in the search rankings. Maintaining your own website as the authority on your business means that other sites will not rank as well. Creating a network of like-minded businesses and blogs that will fill up the front page will cause traffic to the problem sites to fall off, giving you more room to breathe and to address any other lingering issues.

Maintenance

Finally, there is the process of maintenance. There are going to be many sources online that tend to paint your company in an unflattering light. While the steps above can help you to fix your reputation, the maintenance portion will help you to stay on top of new assaults upon your business. Looking for mentions of your site online should be a daily activity, as should checking for bad backlinks or for individuals trying to make use of your intellectual property. Online reputation management services generally help to provide the tools necessary for this sort of basic maintenance, but it is also important that you use common sense to figure out whether or not your company’s reputation has shifted.

Maintaining your reputation online is incredibly important. In cyberspace, that reputation may very well be all that you have. If you are not willing to fight for it, businesses that are more focused on reputation maintenance will eventually take your share of the market. While it is always best to make sure that you run a business that is worth a good reputation, you should still continue to fight against those who would bring your business down. Working to maintain your reputation online is just another part of the modern marketing process, and one which you should invest in if you want to survive in today’s far more competitive marketplace.