OP-ED: Firms look to search engines to manage reputations

Not long ago, a global HR company with operations in five countries suddenly found sales dropping dramatically for apparently no reason.

Not long ago, a global HR company with operations in five countries suddenly found sales dropping dramatically for apparently no reason.

There had been no significant change in the competitive landscape. The company?s PR group had a book full of positive clips. The advertising efforts continued at the same high pace as previously, and the sales team was working as diligently as ever. Company leadership was baffled and under- standably alarmed.

It was soon discovered that many potential prospects, having read an article or seen an advertisement, were heading online to search for information on the company via search engines. When searching under the company name, a number 5 listing in Google warned that the company?s services were a ?rip-off.? The company?s reputation was being aggressively maligned online by a couple of ex-staffers, leading to the sales plunge.

The reason it was missed is that monitoring the search engine results that impacted corporate reputation had fallen into the netherworld between PR and interactive marketing. Interactive marketing was focused on driving traffic. PR was focused on traditional media. It was off everyone?s radar screen.

The company then understood what many other reputation-sensitive companies are rapidly learning: With more than 4 billion searches conducted a month, search engines have become a prominent source of information that can make - or break - a company?s reputation. Search engines generate natural rankings (aside from paid placement ads) through sophisticated algorithms that automatically evaluate many factors. Search engines have become the main information resource for consumers, reporters, investors, regulators, and business partners.

According to JupiterResearch, 90% of online users search the internet for product and company information before they make a purchase. Ninety-one percent of journalists say they use search engines to research articles, reports the Pew Center. And according to Burson-Marsteller, 84% of the group defined as e-fluentials - the group of the most influential ?movers and shakers? who help shape opinions - have read product- or service-related messages on opinion websites in the past year. How do they find these websites? Search engines.

The top result pages under a company or product name have become a highly influential new form of media, and the top rankings have become the new ?digital front pages.? Yet for many companies that otherwise spend substantial sums investing in their reputation and brand, they are often unpleasantly surprised when they Google themselves.

The reason: While the web is an increasingly powerful channel to promote company goods and services, it also presents the unscrupulous or merely disgruntled with a powerful mechanism to damage a company?s image.

Negative and inaccurate information from articles, product reviews, and grassroots sites created by disgruntled customers or employees is often ranked prominently under company-branded keyword searches, making this information highly visible and accessible to important company constituents.

Unlike the offline media world, governed by an editorial team, highly visible websites do not necessarily translate into credible sites, although search engine users tend to give more credence to high-ranking sites. Few realize what Google disclaims in its terms of service: ?The sites displayed ... are developed by people over whom Google exercises no control. The search results that appear from Google?s indices are indexed by Google?s automated machinery and computers. Google cannot and does not screen the sites. ...?

Concerned companies that believe they are being unfairly maligned generally have first turned to litigation. The problems of this approach are two-fold: First, many protest sites are often protected under ?fair use.? Second, protest sites often regard a lawsuit as free publicity.

So what to do? Some leading companies are quietly implementing an innovative solution called search engine reputation management, or SERMA, which fuses the best of reputation management skills with search engine optimization. It is founded on a simple premise: According to Jupiter, 75% of search engine users never scroll beyond the first page of results. And it is very rare for users to scroll past the top 20 or first two pages of results. The critical battleground for reputation management is in the top 20 listings under a relevant company site.

By using advanced and highly ethical search engine optimization strategies and other approaches, firms can dominate the top listings under their names. Doing so has two benefits: It provides a highly visible forum for new and accurate information. Second, and perhaps most important, it pushes negative listings off the ?visibility cliff.?

While the approach may seem simple enough, accomplishing it requires a highly nuanced understanding of advanced search marketing optimization, link building, and reputation management. It must also bridge a company?s marketing groups, which often work in silos with objectives. Further, it must be implemented carefully to ensure it stays fully within the terms of service of Google and other engines. For example, the content must be diverse enough to meet search engine terms of service, which rightly frown upon spam-dexing, or the technique of optimizing essentially the same content over and over.

SERMA is not designed to be a panacea for poor or deceptive business practices. Instead, it should be used as a key element in a more holistic reputation management program that spans the organization and also gets to the root of the problem.

Clearly, now is the time for the PR industry to proactively extend its reach into search engines and incorporate this new form of media into their programs. Indeed, their companies? reputations depend on it.

  • Rob Key is president and CEO of Converseon, a digital communications agency.

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