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How to use search to shield your brand from negativity

How to use search to shield your brand from negativity Eric Papczun

Most marketers understand the reputation management in the context of traditional marketing and public relations. Every day we see companies distributing releases and executives giving press conferences to address a crisis or negative issue that affects their brand. But as more and more consumers turn to the internet for news, information and product research, marketers must ask themselves: What is online brand reputation management, and why is it important to our brand?

We know that consumers use search engines and visit brand websites throughout the purchase process; their blogs and websites discuss products; and they trust consumer reviews and opinions about brands. In fact, Opinion Research notes 84 percent of Americans are influenced by online customer reviews. According to a new study from Performics and ROI Research, consumers are also very willing to engage with and discuss brands on social networking sites. Forty-six percent of people say they are likely to talk about a product on Facebook; 44 percent say the same about Twitter.

A critical part of managing your brand's reputation is monitoring for negative publicity that can be easily found on the web. This concept extends beyond basic alignment of online tactics and messaging with traditional, or "offline," reputation management strategies. Furthermore, it is not just about the brand name itself, it's also product names, the domain name, the industry, competitors, and publicly known figures associated with the brand (e.g., Bill Gates to Microsoft; Richard Branson to Virgin).

How should marketers establish a brand reputation management strategy? Before developing a plan of attack, consider the goals of online reputation management efforts and create a strategy that complements existing offline plans.

Online reputation management consists of three key strategies:

  1. Search engine optimization (SEO): Provides cost effective, long-term benefits that enable positive online content and messages

  2. Paid search (SEM, PPC): Addresses immediate communication needs and counteracts negative messages

  3. Social media: Acts as a viral, message distribution, and brand engagement channel

In this column, I'll tackle the art and science of SEO and paid search reputation management strategies, while my next column will address reputation management using social media, as well as tactics for monitoring and measuring online reputation management.

Long-term benefits of SEO
Like any SEO effort, protecting a brand's online reputation takes time; but the rewards can be more than worth the wait. Although SEO efforts won't take care of immediate issues a marketer faces when combating a reputation crisis, a sustainable yet adaptable SEO program is a marketer's best proactive strategy for nurturing their brand online on an ongoing basis.

Start by perusing the existing sarch engine results page (SERP) for brand queries and make a list of the positive, neutral, and negative listings. Now create links from a relevant section of your site to each of the positive listings. These links will help boost the positive listings higher in the SERP thus forcing less positive listings down the page. Read the content behind all the negative listings and develop a strategy to respond to each criticism and attack. This should be done in conjunction with an offline strategy. Neutral listings should be evaluated and assisted by SEO if it is felt they help keep less positive listings from ranking higher in the SERP.

Consider creating videos to humanize your message. Place each video within its own optimized page with a unique URL to improve its chances of ranking in universal or video search results. Your videos should also be uploaded to video sharing sites like YouTube and be included in a video site map for easy finding by the engines.

Ryanair, one of England's discount airlines, has long struggled with negative press and consumer sentiment. The current SERP results for the term "Ryanair" shows negative publicity about its recent credit card policy change, and other listing headlines include: "Ryanair named worst family brand" and "Ryanair Sucks -- Never Fly Ryanair." While it may be an affordable, practical airline option, consumers searching may never know it because of the negative press that takes up the SERP.

A solid SEO strategy would optimize Ryanair landing pages around keywords such as Ryanair, cheap flight, Irish airline, and more. The company should include site content that highlights the benefits of continuing to travel with their airline despite their new credit card policy. The airline could also build out social network pages, including Facebook, Twitter, and even a Ryanair blog that highlights the latest and greatest deals and happenings. This could help push any negative listings down the search engine results page. Additionally, Ryanair should take some steps with online and offline public relations to dilute the existing negative press and combat any future negative stories.

Maintaining an ongoing SEO program that fosters positive and neutral brand messages will ensure that, if the a brand crisis comes, the stability and strength of the brand's online presence may  displace other potentially negative results on page one.

React fast with paid search
When an emerging crisis requires marketers to quickly diffuse bad press or negative reactions, paid search can help disseminate the brand's side of the story quickly and effectively. Reactively managing crises in this manner can often be done cost effectively by targeting specific, situational keywords that reach a focused group of interested searchers. This approach has proven effective for many brands that need to quickly attack a bad situation.

A recent example of good online reputation management is from Toll House, which had to recover from the discovery of E. coli in its cookie dough. Consumers searching for the brand found unfavorable natural search results; for instance, one such result said the FDA was telling people not to eat Nestle Toll House cookie dough.

The company quickly deployed paid search ads to apologize, address consumer concerns, indicate that the recall was voluntary, and offset damaging natural listings.

While the brand's use of relevant, situational keywords for paid search helped to tell its own side of the story, a comprehensive reputation management strategy (SEO, SEM and social media) would have helped contain any bad press and minimize associations of the E. coli outbreak with the Toll House brand.

Opportunities with online reputation management
Smart marketers should build up a defense against reputation issues. If you don't have an online reputation management strategy, it's never too late to start. Keep these four best practices in mind when managing brands with search:

  1. Control your brand before others do it for you

  2. Continually monitor what is being said online about your brand

  3. Create messages that resonate and engage with consumers

  4. Invest in short- and long-term solutions to secure your brand's equity

Failing to set a proactive strategy and keep these and other reputation management best practices in mind can lead to rash, knee-jerk decisions that do more harm than good.

In my next column I'll address online reputation management in a social media-driven world and ways to monitor and measure reputation management. To discuss any of these examples or other thoughts for online reputation management, email me at [email protected].

Eric Papczun is vice president of optimization services at Performics

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Eric Papczun leads search engine optimization (SEO) and feed marketing and is responsible for product evolution, operations and service delivery. His team specializes in increasing visibility and traffic to large retail, manufacturer, publisher,...

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