The Threat You Can't Ignore

Counselor Q&A With Consultant Kent Campbell

Kent CampbellThink one angry customer can't sink your company? Don't be naïve. Negativity spreads like wildfire on the Internet and, without a plan, you could get burned. This Counselor Q&A delves into how to maintain a quality reputation with customers.

If you own or run a business, consider this your wake-up call. One scathing online review, a couple of lousy Web ratings or a few malicious tweets and your years of market credibility could be obliterated instantly. And face it, your competition won't feel sorry for you. "People can't stop looking at the train that goes off the rails," says consultant Kent Campbell.

Without question, Campbell believes, you need to think today about how to protect and bolster your Internet reputation. Surveys show about 70% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, meaning Internet comments could dramatically affect your brand, even if your company doesn't have a large Web presence. Hoping your company isn't targeted is just not a smart approach.

"Prevention is the best medicine," Campbell says.

Of course, too many firms act too late. That keeps Campbell – one of the nation's foremost experts on Internet reputation management – a busy man. He takes on 120 projects every year, clearing companies' names through a coordinated set of SEO strategies. Here, in an interview with Counselor, Campbell offers some of his top tips for defending and repairing business reputations.

Counselor: How can a company build a strong Internet reputation?
Campbell: Let's start with the obvious. Respond quickly to customer needs, preferably before a complaint is posted online. Some complaints will inevitably be posted. Giving consumers a place to air their grievances such as a Facebook page is a good place to start. When customers have an official, highly-ranked place to complain where they know they'll be heard, they'll often use it. If possible, businesses want to hear about and respond to complaints in a forum they have some control of. When customers complain on a third-party website like RipOff Report, the conversation can take a turn for the worse.

Counselor: Can anything be done to prevent complaints from getting out of hand?
Campbell: A properly optimized and monitored forum for any complaints will occupy results when a company's name is searched. Owning as many positions on the first page, in addition to a space for the inevitable unhappy customers, will give you a degree of control over how your company is perceived. Look at it this way – if you don't create a place for people to complain and get instant responses, someone else will fill the void for you.

Counselor: Can responding to a complaint actually backfire?
Campbell: A complaint lives on in search results years after the fact. Responding in writing on these types of sites often strengthens the negative search results – making the third-party complaint site rise in search results for a company's brand. We've encountered many attorneys whose legal responses on third-party forums on behalf of their clients have effectively caused the negative search result to rise, as well as strengthen and refresh an online conversation that further damages their client. People are in a hurry, so they very often believe search results without looking deeper. They make their decision not to do business with a company based solely on the search engine results page snippet.

Counselor: Realistically, do bad reviews ever get removed?
Campbell: Bad reviews can be removed by the reviewer on many complaint sites, but not all. If an editor can be convinced a review is fake, they may also take action to remove it. Our experience has been that ComplaintsBoard.com has been good about this in the past.

Counselor: What specific steps should a company take to repair its Internet reputation?
Campbell: If the problem is a complaint from a bona fide customer and the complaint is on a site the company controls, respond instantly and publicly. But if the problem is on a third-party complaint site that is a problem in branded search results, it may be better to contact the reviewer non-publicly, solve the problem, and ask them to remove the complaint if you can. If a problem review cannot be removed, or if it may be from a competitor seeking to discredit you posing as a customer, it may be best to suppress it in search results. This is accomplished by creating or identifying at least 10 truly relevant Web destinations (Facebook, LinkedIn, websites, blogs, review sites, press releases, etc.) for your branded search term and optimizing them to rise in search results. Optimization of the search results can range from what is called "white hat" SEO to more aggressive means.

Counselor: Google has complained that some reputation management techniques go too far in altering search results. Is Google off base?
Campbell: Some businesses that call themselves reputation management companies are really just perpetrators of spam. In the case of these companies, Google is absolutely right, in our opinion. These companies use a shotgun approach that is often illegal, but not traceable to them. They'll take any client for a price. Google is interested in providing relevant search results to its users. We do our best to help our clients help Google in this respect and sincerely believe we have dramatically improved search results within Google's guidelines. Frankly, in most cases, it is easier to go with the current than against it, and we always start a project by improving the relevancy of organic search results. But given a choice between our client going out of business due to negative search results and Google's wishes, we side with our carefully chosen clients.

Counselor: Should companies send out self-promotional samples to boost reviews?
Campbell: Asking for reviews is tricky business. Many review sites frown on the practice. Blatantly providing swag in return for good reviews is ham-fisted at best.

Counselor: Should a company pay for online reputation management and monitoring?
Campbell: Monitoring an online reputation in search results is free and easy using tools like Google Alerts. Monitoring social media often requires more sophisticated tools such as Trackur.com. The cost doesn't come from monitoring, though; the cost comes from response. We've successfully run campaigns for small businesses for as little as $2,000 per month for a few months. Our larger projects can easily run $25,000 per month for many months. But a small company that has no real online reputation problems can save a lot of money in the long term without using professional services.

Counselor: How can small businesses do that?
Campbell: With the attitude that prevention is the best cure, look at the first page of a branded search result and decide if those search results can be improved and made more relevant by creating and optimizing your own content. Every position a company "owns" on the first page of a branded search result is approximately 10% of the battle. Search results for your brand are like shelves at the supermarket. Like any company, the more shelf space you control, the better.

Counselor: What are a few insider secrets that can strengthen reputation management?
Campbell: Create the highest-quality content you can afford. Don't outsource the work to a country that does not share the culture of the target market. Pay attention to good user-experience design. Pay attention to bounce rate. Don't do everything from the same IP address. Don't lie. – E-mail: dvagnoni@asicentral.com.
Twitter: @VagnoniASI