In a world that grows more digital by the day, a new adage has emerged: "You are who Google says you are." If you want to know what first impressions are being made online about your brand or organization, just Google yourself. You may be surprised by what you discover.
I had the good fortune of being able to share some of my thoughts on how brands can protect those first impressions across search results pages at last month's B2B Search Strategy Summit in San Francisco. At the time, I was caught up with the NBA Finals, so I jokingly called my discussion "Playing Brand DE-FENSE." Here are the highlights of that discussion:
Why Reputation Monitoring is Important
B2B brands aren't immune from situations that require a crisis communications type of response. While the most well-known examples of organizations that have had their reputations damaged (both offline and online) tread closer to the consumer realm, there are just as many instances in B2B. And though true crisis communications situations are easily identified, there are many more examples of brands being disparaged or misrepresented online that fall short of qualifying as a "crisis."
As a result, stakeholders to the B2B brand must proactively monitor the online conversation, to ensure that the dialogue is accurate and fair. Reputation monitoring is of growing importance, primarily because:
- Anyone can have a voice online: Setting up a Twitter or Facebook account takes mere minutes; even a dedicated blog website through the likes of Blogger or WordPress is a simple and intuitive process for web novices.
- The web affords anonymity: Anyone can comment on a blog thread, or propagate content under a non-descript Twitter handle. There is no requirement that the person authoring the content identify him/herself. That's a scary thought for many organizations.
Defining Search Reputation Management
While this online chatter occurs across social media networks, community websites, or blogs, the real damage to brands occurs across search engine results pages (SERPs). Modern day search engines define a rich user experience as one that includes a variety of results for the user to choose from. Google coined this "universal search" a few years ago, but in response to the real-time nature of the web it has grown to incorporate much more content from social venues within its traditional result set.
Search reputation management, then, is the process of monitoring and managing one's "reputation" across the SERPs. For branded search queries, are there one or more results that could be potentially damaging to your organization? We're looking here for results that could preclude your organization from making the consideration short-list; perhaps even prevent you from wrapping up a deal you thought was done.
When you find such examples, it's time to take action. Not necessarily to respond directly to the online "detractor," but to create a message of your own that would be identified as more relevant and useful for the particular search query.
4 Tenets of Successful Search Reputation Management
Successful search reputation programs tend to have four things in common. They:
- Leverage the authority of existing corporate web assets: B2B search is both easier and more difficult than B2C. It's more difficult due to the inherent complexity of the B2B buying dynamic, with lengthy purchase consideration, multiple client-side stakeholders, and irrational behavior patterns. It's easier because many B2B organizations, if not most, fail to recognize just how authoritative their websites have become in the eyes of Google and Bing. We've had tremendous success with search engine optimization (SEO) assignments, often by doing little more than counseling our clients on SEO best practices.
Reputation management initiatives are really no different. When targeting specific brand terms, we first investigate where our owned web assets fall across the SERPs for that query. Often, by optimizing the assets we already have, we can command a good share of the page due to of our authority and relevancy to the term. We'll optimize the corporate website plus any existing campaign microsite environments. A solid internal linking strategy between and within these sites is also required.
- Optimize multiple media formats: Universal search, which aims to return a good cross-section of results for any given keyword query, means optimizing alternative media formats is a must. Especially when targeting branded terms for reputation management, it's important to optimize online images, video, news, and blog content. With the right mix, you'll start to notice those items appear within the results with greater regularity.
If your targeted term(s) is the name of a person within the organization (the CEO, for example), you'll want to consider some alternative options. Try Google Profiles, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Each of those services allows for custom, vanity URLs, meaning you can specify your "keywords" within the URL itself.
- Capitalize on the "real-time" search arms race: Google and Bing are desperately trying to solve the challenges posed by real-time search. With the explosion of social media, the demand for real-time content has never been greater, and the engines have the difficult task of indexing huge volumes of content and instantaneously determining which items are credible and worthy of inclusion. This past December, Google even began integrating Twitter streams within its first page results for select queries. This represents huge opportunities for your reputation management programs, if you know what to do.
At a search conference in 2008, SEO Jonah Stein said that crawl rate was the new PageRank. It's only now becoming apparent just how right Stein was. Our data confirms a correlation between the frequency of indexation and high search rankings for targeted phrases. We'll frequently look to rate of indexation as a primary key performance indicator for reputation management initiatives.
Maximizing your rates of indexation means fresh, relevant content will be required across the web properties you're targeting. It also requires a strategic approach to your hyperlink structures. If you can determine which websites already have high indexation rates, then you can link out to less-crawled sites to give them a boost. It's about sharing the love and increasing your chances for inclusion across the SERPs.
- Build links in accordance with the new link graph: With more people sharing content across social media sites and social sharing services, the traditional backlink profile of a website is changing. Rather than capturing links from third-party websites, the norm since the web's inception, the new link graph understands that rich content is capturing a greater share of inbound links from social sites. A degree of link cannibalization occurs across Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites, as those sites continue to add numbers to their user base.
But the search engines aren't dumb, and now look at a broad range of "social signals" when determining a website's relative authority. While most social websites don't pass PageRank (link juice) through outbound hyperlinks, those links are crawled and thus increase the rate of indexation of their targets. And we've already determined the importance of crawl rate.
The easiest thing to do is to share content across the most popular social websites, and invite others to do the same through the use of social sharing widgets.
Getting Practical about Reputation Management
Search reputation management isn't easy work. It requires a lot of time, energy, patience, and a willingness to revise your approach after figuring out what does and doesn't work.
The best strategy is a proactive one. Incorporate SEO checks into everything you do within your public relations and social media practices. Think of it as an insurance policy of sorts, to help defend brands against minor online attacks; certainly not as a silver-bullet solution to major crisis situations.
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