Google can be weaponized. Sometimes by accident, other times on purpose. Today’s online reputation management is a type of information counter-warfare with reviews and content replacing guns and heavy artillery. So let’s launch into what you can do to fight back against a negative online reputation.
Countering reputation attacks
Not 20 years ago, people had few ways to express their dissatisfaction with a company’s product in any meaningful way or to any broad audience. If you didn’t like the product or service you’d purchased, you either took it up with a (very) modest customer support department, attempted to return it at the place of purchase, or just grumbled to friends and family about how inferior the product or service was.
Then along came the wave of disruption that is search and social media. It leveled the playing field and then tilted it wildly in the favor of anyone with a computer and a little knowledge. Brand managers woke up to nightmares like Facebook videos decimating a company’s reputation in a blink of an eye.
It's going to happen
We live in an era where snowy white corporate reputations are quickly going the way of unicorns. Sooner or later, a dissatisfied client is bound to write something about you that’s damaging to your reputation, ranging from justified anger to downright maliciousness.
How do you get rid of it? Well, you don't - at least not entirely. But you can often mitigate the inevitable corporate reputation damage.
First: how not to remove information
Reputation rule number one:
Content that was placed by others almost always needs to be removed by others.
People love to edit their own Wikipedia pages. Can anyone tell that you have edited your own Wikipedia page? Yes. Your IP address is visible to everyone and can be geolocated if you don't have a Wikipedia account. If you do have a Wikipedia account Wikipedia can still tell where you are, either manually or algorithmically. Finally, if something negative is deleted from Wikipedia there is a strong indication that the person doing the edit was motivated by something other than altruism (selfless concern for others).
The tone brands tend to use on their Wikipedia pages is also a problem. Why? Because brand managers are often the ones doing the Wikipedia editing and they think brand managers. That means they write that way too. At Reputation X we can often spot the writing styles of brand managers without the need for stylometry (programmatic authorship attribution) simply because their writing style shouts "advertising"!
Another way of not removing information is to scream at the person who posted it - either in an email or with an attorney. At least - try to talk - before tossing lawyers at the problem. An open hand is better than a fist when attempting to have negative content removed from the internet. Here are some content removal negotiation tactics that might help.
The right way to “remove” information
Rather than removing the information yourself, successful online reputation management is all about getting the information removed backstage. Start by tracking down and gauging the temperament of the original poster of this information. Does the situation seem salvageable? Can their discontentment be turned around or are they a lost cause? Is there any chance you can get them to remove this information themselves?
Many of the biggest “wins” in online reputation management history happened when companies fessed up to their public blunders and took public responsibility for their actions to diffuse public outcry. Of course, the win wasn't immediate all the time - sometimes more pain followed before things got better. Today’s online brand management is about two things: diplomacy and transparency. Be fair. Shoot straight. You’ll be surprised at how far you can get. If your brand managers think that, under the circumstances, fessing up is a bad idea, then you might want to move straight to suppression.
In Google or Bing suppression means pushing something down in search results.
How to suppress negative content
Usually, the first thing that comes to mind when online reputation management is mentioned in non-professional settings is this - obscuring the bad, making it harder to access by burying it beneath a mountain of more recent information that ideally shows your online brand in a more positive light. This technique works most of the time if done right. It will backfire horribly if done incorrectly.
That said, the information you post can range from well-thought-out and meaningful to downright irrelevant depending on the audience in question.
Steps to push down bad search results
- Visualize who is searching online for your brand. This is called a persona.
- Look at the bottom of branded search results for Searches Related To... and People Also Ask.
- Create a content plan that addresses the questions and queries found in those two places. Your content plan should have at least 100 articles. Each article should be better than anything else that is ranking on the first page for the target search query and should satisfy the "persona" you researched above. Content plan info here.
- Within your content plan make sure you have many types of media. For example: articles, video, guest posts, social media, and press releases.
- Once created, reach out to media partners, blogs that accept guest posts, and your social media feeds to find places to post the content. Hint: Make sure your brand name is in the headline for most of them.
- Wait two weeks to see where they land in search results. Then, use your company social media feeds to drive traffic to the content that performs best in search results. Keep this up for at least a month for each article.
The above list has been massively simplified, but you get the idea.
Note: Don't use Spray and Pray reputation techniques
Burying content under fluff and filler makes you suspect to the risk of this information resurfacing at a later time and makes you look worse than before. So - quality content only! Are you proud to put your name on it? If not, don't post it.
Google can tell what's good and bad. A big change in Google has been the RankBrain system, a sort of artificial intelligence that looks at web pages and tries to rate their quality as a person would. So if a person wouldn't like the page, RankBrain may not either. When online reputation management companies throw a lot of irrelevant or low quality information at Google it's called "spray and pray." Avoid spray and pray techniques.
Reviews: Organic, well-spaced improvement wins
Negative reviews and indexed results need to be made to go away in a similar fashion to how they were instigated- with natural chronological spacing, thoughtful client feedback, and a healthy dose of visual content (either video or pictures) between the negative post and the positive ones succeeding it. A general rule of thumb is: if it looks fake, it's best not being there at all. Or, better yet, don't do fake reviews.
De-indexing: Make the information inaccessible
De-indexing is another way to manage your online reputation- when neither taking the results down nor burying them beneath a mountain of more relevant results are viable, consider getting the information removed from search engines where people can search for it.
Are you a person in Europe?
If you’re European, you have the right to get information about your person or corporation taken down with little to no strife so long as you can prove ownership. You can also make a DMCA claim if the information posted online infringes on your intellectual property. Finally, you can use the Google URL removal tool to attempt to get this information removed temporarily, possibly even for good.
There are tons of ways to manage an online reputation- it’s not from naught that people are calling the first search engine result page of Google “the new Corporate Business Card.” Keeping your online reputation clean is all about upkeep.
Reputation Attacks FAQs
Can I edit my own Wikipedia page?
No. Don't edit your own Wikipedia page because you can be geolocated, which will tip off Wikipedia editors that you edited your own page. Whenever something negative is deleted from Wikipedia, it can be assumed that the person who made the edit was doing so in their own self-interest.
What are some content removal best practices?
It is always best to work as quietly as possible when removing online content. Never resort to anger as a tactic. Instead, gauge the temperament of the original poster and try to work with them to get the content either removed or edited.
How do I push down bad search results?
Push down negative search results by creating a content plan that includes positive articles about your brand. Get these articles to rank above the negative content by including relevant keywords and promotion tactics.
What is de-indexing?
De-indexing is a way of removing negative content from search engine results. The content still exists, but Google doesn't index it, so it doesn't appear on your SERP.