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A hands-on approach to online reputation management

What do you do when you want to find out more information about someone or something? You Google it, don’t you? Google plays an enormous part in our modern, digitally dependent lives. We give it the power of life or death – not literally, of course. But the nature of the web means that anyone can say anything about you; they can slate or praise you and, depending on the popularity of the content, those opinions become the only things about you that internet users see. They become part and parcel of your online reputation.

It’s not possible to control what people say about you (take Julius Malema’s threat to shut down Twitter unless people stopped mocking him and creating false profiles using his name, for instance), but it is possible to influence the web-using public’s perception of you. You can do this by way of online reputation management.

Managing your reputation online starts with creating a brand presence before any crises arise. The starting point is your website. It needs to be good, which means it needs to be easy to navigate (user-friendly) and easy on the eyes (hire a professional). Use SEO to climb up the rankings. Search engine optimisation makes your website more visible to Google and the other search engines. By using keywords and phrases relevant to your company and your products you can boost your presence in search engine results pages (SERPs). Don’t overdo it though. SEO is important but not as important as a website designed with your customers and not Google in mind.

You should also try to maintain a steady stream of new content to keep drawing Google’s attention. The best way to do this is with a blog. Your blog is the human face behind your company. It should be used to engage and interact with your customers and not as a self-promotional platform. You should encourage your employees to contribute blog posts (within certain parameters) and you definitely need to respond to comments, otherwise your readers will feel ignored and that won’t help your reputation one jot.

You need to own your name. For starters, this means you should use a URL that contains your name. It means that you should purchase as many variations of your name as you can afford, once again, to prevent competitors from buying them up. Some online reputation management experts even say that you should purchase negative sounding URLs so that they can’t be bought by others to perpetuate bad publicity.

Going further, owning your name also entails creating profiles on a range of social networking (Facebook and Twitter) and media (Digg and YouTube) sites. The more often your name appears and the more content you put out the more likely that searches for your name or product or service will bring web users to your site and not a competitor’s. A glut of positive news will also make it more difficult for negative news to stick.

Know your current reputation. Use reputation management tools (Google Alerts, Twitter Search, Technorati and RapLeaf) to find out what people are saying about online. You can set up alerts or monitor conversations that include your company name (Hardcore Insurance) or relevant keywords (4×4 insurance, motorcycle insurance, accident insurance). The results will tell you whether your reputation is rock solid or on thin ice.

If the ice is indeed thin then you need to start remedying the situation. If it appears that only one (albeit powerful) person bears a grudge find out why. Don’t be arrogant about it, but approach him or her with an offer to work things out. Engage them online so that other web users will see you trying to make an effort. If the problem has to do with faulty products or dodgy service then you need to apologise for the error and take steps to mend it. The same applies for managing a potentially catastrophic scandal; don’t ignore it or cover it with self-righteous bluster. Rather address it head on. Genuine remorse and attempts at redress will likely win over more people than were on your side before.

One very important thing to remember is to remain authentic. Don’t lie, don’t make things up and don’t create false scenarios. Andy Beal says that once it’s boiled down to its absolute basics online reputation management is about sincerity, transparency and consistency.

If you keep these three tenets in mind you’re well on your way to creating a strong, positive brand presence online.

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