Navigating the world of online reputation management services can be extremely tricky. The industry is unregulated and Forbes magazine has, in recent reporting, shared stories that might make any small business owner nervous. All this makes researching the real value of online reputation management services that much more important and it begs the question: for the small business owner, is it worth your time and money to invest in online reputation management services?
Small business, high stakes
“Integrity is a platform to market yourself and your business,” explains Marvin Sandberg, a counselor for SCORE, a non-profit small business counseling service. “When your reputation is put into question it can be difficult to bounce back.”
“The fine art market is a small one, but there’s a lot of money in it,” Sandberg says, by way of an example. “People pay hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars for genuine and historical pieces. But before they do, they want to have that artwork authenticated appraised and provenance researched. I privately consult with a firm who had a situation in which they were unfairly skewered in the press in a way that made their firm appear unethical. This firm’s integrity was put into question—and it took time to bounce back—all because this article appeared whenever the name was searched on Google.”
Brent Franson, vice president at Reputation.com says, “There are numerous statistics that show reviews materially impact a company's financials.” Franson cites a recent Harvard Business School study of Yelp.com that found a one-star difference in a business’s online rating impacted its bottom line by between five and nine percent.
The need for reputation management varies tremendously based on the type of business you’re in. Customers don’t research all purchases with equal diligence. If you’re in a business where you’re selling expertise and trust—think professional services, or very high-end retail—the odds are much greater that your customer is going to be researching you online before they do business with you. Think of reputation management as a life jacket for a certain kind of business: if you’re a ferry boat captain, you’ll want one, but if you run a bowling alley, probably not.
Reputation management services promise to provide a range of services, including reputation monitoring and repair. The former provides small business owners with notification whenever their business is mentioned online, whether that’s on a news website, blog, review site, or social media. Reputation repair takes the process a step further, promising to remove or mitigate unfavorable commentary so it doesn’t appear on the first page of search engine results.
Erasing content from the Internet is not an easy task. Independent review sites like Angie’s List and Yelp—often a small business’s biggest source of external reviews—seldom, if ever, take down negative commentary. These sites warn reviewers of legal issues, but stand behind the mantra that reviews are freedom of speech. Content removed from websites, blogs, and social media platforms can often be found by a determined searcher using an archival site like Wayback Machine, and once the searcher has found the content, there’s absolutely nothing to stop them from reposting it all over the Internet.
Rather than removing negative commentary, reputation repair services focus their energies on ensuring the search results related to your company are more positive in nature. These techniques can include high-volume targeted searches, generating positive content and commentary regarding your company, acquiring negative domain names, and redirecting traffic from these sites to your company site, and more.
Pricing for these services range from a one-time fee of a few hundred dollars to address problematic content to more than $25,000 for an ongoing reputation repair campaign. Is this money well spent? That’s a question that’s often hard to answer, as there’s no sure-fire way to track all the sales you might have missed because of a critical review. So, for every small business, the reputational risk and potential return on investment will be a unique equation.
Considering the DIY approach
DIY reputation management can be a valid option for the small business owner. If you are uncertain about the value of reputation management services for your company, take the time to discover what you can find out on your own. “Many small businesses can be very surprised by the results that show up on the first page of the search results, especially if they have never really done a search for their business online before,” says John Souza, president of Social Media Magic University. “Also, not all the information will be positive or true.”
Lower cost options may already be at your fingertips. If you are paying for a social media management tool like Sprout Social or Raven Tools to manage your day-to-day social media, be sure to check out their extended features for social monitoring.
Repairing a reputation
If you discover problematic content, you have options. Exercise restraint before you respond to negative postings on review sites; adding your commentary can actually boost the visibility of the complaint by making it appear more active. The best response to negative publicity is positive publicity: make strategic use of media connections and solicit positive commentary from your best customers on social media to organically boost your online image.
Once you’ve developed a baseline understanding of what your online reputation is, the next step is to monitor the web for any changes. Google Alerts and Social Mention will deliver emails to your inbox daily, letting you know what is going on. Take the time to read these emails. Social media management tools often have graphs and charts to show you positive and negative feedback. Awareness is key to assessing the seriousness of the situation and crafting an appropriate response.
If you don’t have the resources to handle these tasks in-house, you may want to outsource the content development to a reliable pro, says Souza. “Most businesses do not have time to continue having fresh, original content published week after week so a professional service will help you with everything from blog posts to press releases,” he explains. “A good web reputation management agency will work one-on-one with you to produce maximally effective content.”