That scathing Yelp review can not only damage your company's reputation, it can hound you for years to come. Given the number of decisions driven by online research in this day and age, small businesses can't afford not to manage their reputations, says Michael Zammuto, president of Brand.com.
Brand.com specializes in helping companies avoid the damaging effects of unflattering content—aimed at them—that may be circulating on the Web. "Clients call us because they know that people research them online," says Zammuto. Moreover, they don't want a few scraps of negative information—which can range from bad reviews to patently false accusations—to undo their years of hard work and efforts to deliver exceptional customer experiences.
Blogs, forums and anonymous review sites, particularly un-moderated ones, give consumers a strong voice. The trouble is that they are also "ripe sources for damage" and often attract commenters and reviewers that do the bidding of your competitors, says Zammuto.
Bottom line: If you don't manage your online reputation, others will write the story of your business. Don't leave that narrative up to people who are hell-bent on seeing you fail.
Online Reputation Management Mistakes
Here are common mistakes that business owners make regarding their online reputation, along with tips on how to avoid making them.
1. Turning a blind eye to the Internet
"Small businesses don't take online research seriously enough," says Zammuto.
Even if you own a neighborhood storefront that generates most of its business from foot traffic and have no plans to sell a single item online, don't underestimate the power of the Internet to affect your bottom line. Customers often call Zammuto's company and admit, "I don't know how this is hurting our business." A good first step is realizing that it can.
Between keeping customers happy, employees motivated and the books balanced, the last thing on small business owners' minds is to Google their own names. Zammuto suggests that you carve out some time, run a search on your PC or mobile, and see how your business appears to the rest of the world.
The results may shock, or worse, infuriate you.
2. Giving up control
"A business will never buy a billboard and let others write on it," says Zammuto. Why should you?
Don't encourage potential customers to use online review sites to learn more about your business. Admittedly, Zammuto's advice seems counterintuitive in these super-social times. "Here's the problem: you can't manage it," he says. "[They're] an invitation for mischief," he adds.
Instead, focus on Google. "Treat search results as things you can control." One way to sway search results in your favor is to "fill them up with good, informative promotional content."
Be careful though, Google can see right through efforts to game the system.
3. Mistaking advertorials for real content
If your content reeks of advertising, don't expect much love from search engines. "Google views that stuff as not valuable," informs Zammuto. You need a "natural, holistic mix of different content."
Consider sponsored posts for influential bloggers. Pack them with useful information and avoid slipping into an advertorial mindset. "Promote real news stories about your clients that are actual news," he suggests.
Above all, "focus on building educational content" and "embrace helping people." Your business will emerge as an authority, and search engines will reward your nuanced approach with higher-ranking results.
4. Paying for things that you can do yourself
Stop throwing money at the problem. Zammuto often turns away easy money because there is a wealth of free tools and services available to businesses (including some that Brand.com provides) that help them keep an eye on their online reputation.
Be particularly wary of reputation management companies whose business strategy consists of spinning up multiple Twitter accounts and microsites to flood the Web with good feedback and positive-leaning content about your company. Google devalues such tactics and continually tweaks its algorithms to spot quick-and-easy schemes. Those sketchy tactics will send your company hurtling to the bottom of the search engine rankings.
Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.
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