Online Reputation Protection

When you look at the traffic data from a well established website with a recognised brand you will see that around a third of traffic comes from brand terms, and that this traffic converts around twice as well as non brand or generic traffic.  In part this is due to the research / conversion process that users go through, but only a fool would argue that ATL advertising does not have some impact on visits from brand terms.

If you were to walk along the high street in any given town you’d be unlikely to  see a protest about a specific commercial entity, and you would also rarely see any evidence of graffiti saying that a particular business was a scam or provided a hideous customer service, however online it is a different story:  Bad reviews, blogs about poor customer experience and deliberate smearing of a business can be prominent when users are searching, and this can have a big impact on a user’s propensity to buy from a particular supplier.  It goes further than this of course, with Google Suggest and Google Instant, you can be alerted to negative sentiment about a company even before you get to the results page:

A bad suggestion?
A bad suggestion?

Will this put people off?  Probably.  If I was looking for a product and the company selling it was smeared as a scam, then I’d be a lot more likely to look into them and find out more.  If I didn’t have the time, I’d probably shop somewhere else.

What is happening?

You might have read the news about the Italian Wikipedia being closed down temporarily recently due to changes in the law in Italy that mean that potentially false  negative information about an individual or business must be removed within a short period or the publisher will face a fine.   That’s bad news for Italians, but it doesn’t go any way towards addressing the problem.  The internet has a long memory, and the nature of the social web means that content can be shared way beyond its original source very quickly into places where there is no editorial control.  With something like Google Suggest where visibility of keywords is based on user behaviour, you have a situation where negative information can continue to propagate itself indefinitely.

Why do you have a problem?

It’s really easy to publish to the web.  There is essentially no barrier to entry these days.  If I wanted to, I could anonymously register a Blogger or WordPress domain accusing a company of fraudulent practice or bad customer service in minutes, and write content that would see it do reasonably well in Google just off the fact that it is fresh and relevant.  The thing that stops me?  Inclination.  I need a motive to expend the effort in doing all that sort of thing.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t, it’s just that it would take a really  bad experience for me to be bothered to do it.

And that’s the root of the problem.

Companies that do not value their customers and treat them with contempt will inevitably annoy them.  A small grievance about service levels can easily become a vendetta if nothing material is done to resolve the problem.  Unhelpful customer service staff in an off shore call centre, a refusal to accept responsibility for a fault, a lack of response to a genuine grievance, a rude customer service rep will all increase the frustration that a person feels.

The wrong course of action

In too many cases, the first course of action – in many ways, the expected course of action for a company that does not value customers – is to try and bury the problem.  Writing fake reviews, astroturfing forums with effusive praise from sock puppets, registering hundreds of additional branded domains and launching microsites, and threatening legal action will do very little to solve the problem.  It might paper over the cracks for a little while, but it won’t have much of a long term effect.  In fact, it will probably do more harm than good.

There are too many companies who think that reputation management is something that needs to be done after the fact.  It has become crisis management rather than proactive brand building, but that is a mistake.  A reputation is earned not faked.  A company that tries to hide their negative reputation is like King Canute trying to hold back the tide.  They can stop the flow around the point where they are standing, but will ultimately fail.

The right course of action

The right thing to do is to treat complaints as the beginning of a process.  Understanding why someone complained is essential.  Rather than trying to hide from the problem, look at the root of that problem.

  • Does your customer service frustrate people?
  • Do you have a bad product?
  • Are your staff cynical and rude?

Then ask why is this the case?

  • Does your organisation not value customers?
  • Do you fail to deliver the service that customers expect?
  • Are staff properly trained?
  • Are staff motivated?

A common argument about delivering decent service is that it costs too much and that those costs would have to be passed on to consumers.  Bollocks.  The cost of decent service is nothing compared to the opportunity cost of having people put of dealing with your business because you are perceived to be thieves or scum.

The fact is that people will pay more for “better”.  People will pay more for security.  We might live in straightened times and economic insecurity, but we also live in an era of social media and instant feedback.  If you look at the PC or phone market, there is a movement towards companies like Apple.  When people have less to spend, they would rather spend that money wisely, and this means being more careful about who they deal with.

You can clean up the SERPS, but  what you really need to do is clean up your act.