Brands are under a greater degree of scrutiny than ever before because these customer dialogues are taking place far more publicly and in many more locations spanning both on- and offline environments. The current reality is that today's interaction with a customer service agent can easily become fodder for tomorrow's blog post, which can and often is picked up by other blogs, re-posted, re-circulated and then called up on search engine results pages (SERPs). So not only are these conversations public, they are also able to achieve a newfound velocity. A single incident can spread like the proverbial wildfire, potentially sparking a blaze of untold proportions.
Just consider Dell. In 2005, the computer manufacturer endured a firestorm of negative attention when Jeff Jarvis, unhappy with both the PC he had purchased and his attempts to get it fixed, posted a series of comments on his blog complaining about the poor customer service he had received from Dell. Visitors to his blog picked up on the thread, and it didn't take long for Jarvis' dissatisfaction to bleed into the mainstream media, resulting in the kind of PR that no company likes.
For those of us in the process of conducting research, someone else's interaction, potentially even a highly negative one like Jarvis', is more often than not the starting point in our dialogue with a brand. And the primacy of the SERP within this process accounts for why it is increasingly important for brands to engage in reputation monitoring and management, particularly as results pages add richer options for conveying a brand's tone, image and message.
A small but growing body of research has begun to weave a story that shows how search results, whether they are negative, positive or indifferent, inform and influence consumers' perceptions of a brand. More negativity about your business or its products raises the chances that a potential customer will walk away with an unfavorable or, at the very least, a distorted impression of what your brand represents. Proactively applying some of the tactics and best practices I've discussed in previous articles, especially those focused on the creation, optimization and distribution of authentic, relevant content that responds to consumer queries, can help to minimize distortion by balancing your customers' opinions with your brand's messaging.
Sometimes, however, all the SEO and paid search best practices in the world are not enough to counter the sheer volume and velocity of negative sentiment, and any content you produce gets lost or simply overlooked in the midst of a sea of toxic comments. These situations usually result from customer neglect more than anything else. As challenging as they may be to an organization and the ability to do business as usual, they also represent an opportunity for procedural or cultural change.