On first blush, search engine optimization (SEO) and reputation management may seem quite distant cousins. Reputation management has largely been the province of corporate communication and public relations professionals. Search marketing, on the other hand, generally belongs to interactive marketing groups whose mission it is to drive traffic, acquisitions and rankings.
That the two disciplines are not more closely intertwined is insidiously damaging many companies’ corporate and product reputations. Moreover, far too many companies are not even aware of the extent of the damage.
Search engines' results generate natural rankings through sophisticated algorithms that automatically evaluate many different factors. These editorially-oriented results have become a primary information resource for consumers, reporters, investors, employees, regulators and business partners. According to the Pew Center, 91 percent of reporters say they use search engines to research stories. Further, research firm Jupiter says 90 percent of Internet users use search engines to find product and company information before they make a purchase.
With more than 4 billion searches conducted a month, search engines have become a critically important new form of media that can make -- or break -- a company’s reputation. And corporate reputation is no small matter. In fact, according to a recent PR Week/Burson Marsteller survey, more than 81 percent of chief executives are concerned about their companies' reputations.
So while many reputation-sensitive companies pay close attention to how the traditional media portrays them, most are completely unaware of what information is appearing when search engine users type in a company’s name. Those who make an effort to Google themselves may find themselves unpleasantly surprised.
Negative and inaccurate information -- from articles to product reviews to 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. In a networked environment, where good -- and bad -- news can be passed on virally in an instant, it can also be deadly to corporate and brand reputations.
Further, unlike the pre-Internet era when headlines were determined by an editorial team, highly-visible Web sites do not necessarily translate into credible information, although search engine users tend to give more credence to high-ranking sites. Few heed what Google itself 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, and Google cannot and does not screen the sites." In other words: Reader beware.
Here's an example. As of this writing, the estimated 1.6 million a month people who search Google for “Delta Airlines” are exposed to the No. 5 listing, BoycottDelta.org and its tagline, “Less leg room, no privacy.” This means that every month, more than 1.6 million of Delta Airline’s key constituents -- consumers, employees, journalists, regulators, investors and business partners -- are exposed to damaging information about the company. And this does not include viral pass along.
Delta is far from alone. A recent top-line survey revealed that protest sites are actively undermining the reputation of many leading companies, including AOL, Home Depot, Citibank, American Airlines, Ford, Merrill Lynch, Allstate, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Monsanto, Altria, United Airlines, Ford and Nike, among many others.
Indeed, increasingly highly developed protest sites are proliferating. Some sites feature the word "sucks," and are clearly discredited, but others have more sophisticated approaches. While some of the protest sites are little more than a repository for immature humor, i.e. "cybergraffiti," others feature detailed and sometimes persuasive critiques, including 'insider' information. Some are established by advocacy groups, law firms (some of whom are involved in class action lawsuits) and disgruntled consumers. Others have been set up by unions and aggrieved shareholders or laid-off employees. The generally simple architecture of the sites, combined with basic search engine optimization and linking strategies, enables many of these sites to appear prominently under company names in engines.
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 protected under "fair use." Second, protest sites often regard a lawsuit as free publicity.
A Better Solution
Some leading companies are quietly implementing an innovative and cost-effective approach called search engine reputation management, or SERMA for short. This approach fuses the best of reputation management skills with search engine optimization. It is founded on a simple premise: According to Jupiter, 75 percent of search engine users never scroll beyond the first page of results. And it is very rare for a user to scroll past the top 30 (three pages) of search results listings. The critical battleground for reputation management then is for who owns the top 30 listings -- or the digital front pages -- under relevant company searches.
By utilizing advanced search engine optimization strategies, together with reputation management approaches that fully leverage a company’s partnerships and create compelling content, companies can ensure ownership of the top listings under their corporate and product names. The benefits are two-fold: It provides a highly visible forum to provide accurate information about a company to counteract some of the negative and false information being disseminated. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it pushes negative listings off the visibility cliff.
While the approach may sound simple enough, accomplishing it requires a nuanced understanding of search marketing and reputation management. It must also bridge a company’s marketing groups -- Web marketing, corporate communications, content development, IT -- that often work in silos with distinct objectives and goals.
Keep in mind, too, that optimized content must be diverse enough to meet search engine terms-of-service, which rightly frowns upon spam-dexing, or the technique of optimizing essentially the same content over and over.
But the good news is that many companies do produce a large amount of relevant, diverse and legitimate content, including articles, Web site text, speeches, testimonials, press materials, mini-sites and more. Often, this content has not been effectively leveraged and may be locked up in the company’s corporate communications group. Third-party partner content, such as partner Web sites and industry/company reports, must also be leveraged since no one company can dominate all of its top listings.
Once effectively deployed and managed, search engine reputation management can be quite powerful. A global human resources company recently found a highly-negative listing ranking No. 5 under its brand name in Google. The company, which advertised aggressively, was finding potential candidates were searching for references for the company online and finding this negative -- and false -- information planted by former, disgruntled employees. Sales dropped precipitously. After a 90-day implementation utilizing an array of primary and third-party content, the negative listing was pushed out of the top 30 listings. Sales rebounded.
The message to companies is clearly this: When embarking on your next search engine implementation, be sure to help facilitate the integration of your corporate communication, IT and interactive marketing departments. Your corporate and brand reputation depends on it.
Rob Key is president and CEO of Converseon. The company works with a variety of leading brands to help manage their reputations online.