They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and in the age of search engines, your small business can make thousands of impressions each day. Why is it so important to make as many of them as positive as you can? A recent survey by Boston marketing agency Cone found that 80% of people have changed a purchase decision due to a bad review they saw. That means that it’s possible for your product or service to get into a potential customer’s awareness, be considered, and be chosen, and you still don’t end up earning their business because they saw a negative review in your search results just before purchasing.

To avoid this sad state of affairs, many businesses do active reputation management through search engine optimization to ensure that the results potential customers see are as positive as possible. The objective here is to push negative results further down and off the front page entirely by establishing higher ranking results over which you have more control. Online reputation management basically happens in three phases:

1. Start out with a good content marketing strategy. As Brick Marketing points out, “…the best offense is a good defense. Don’t wait for something bad to happen to start building your reputation online.” That is to say, if there are already a number of great search results for you on Google – like your website, blog, articles, and social profiles – it will be harder for results containing a negative review to show up on that crucial first page to begin with. So go ahead and optimize your website with great keywords, keep it fresh, start a blog, and set up all your social profiles.

2. When negative reviews happen, respond well. Even the world’s top brands get negative reviews eventually. What you do have control over is how you respond. If you get a bad review on Yelp, your social media profiles, TripAdvisor, or some other public space, make sure you address it right away. If you ignore the issue, or respond in a defensive or argumentative way, you could end up with a major PR headache. Monitor review sites, keep current on your social media messages, and set up a Google alert for your brand name so you catch things right away. If people do see your negative review, you can mitigate a lot of the damage by having a proactive and empathetic response.

3. Once you’ve dealt with a negative review, get everybody to move on. The thing about the internet is that, much like a diamond, it’s forever. If someone has a negative experience and blasts you on a review site, the chances that they will remove or revise their review once you’ve handled their complaint are slim. Your job now is to help the internet move on and not dwell on the negative. In order to do that, you’ll need to publish some good, relevant, keyword-rich content and hope that Google will rank it above your negative review.

This might include things like adding new pages to your website, writing fresh blog content, sending out press releases, setting up new social profiles you might not have yet (think LinkedIn, Vimeo, YouTube, Slideshare) or setting up groups that are relevant to your product or service on Google+ Communities or LinkedIn Groups. You should also go through and cross-link between your blog articles and webpages where you can, as this will help add credibility to existing content and maybe bump it up a little higher on the page.

When starting this blog post, I began by performing a Google Search on myself to see what kind of results pop up. If you’ve never done it before, plugging your name or the name of your business in and waiting for the results can be nerve-wracking. But knowing where you are is key to getting where you want to go.

About the Author: Sarah Matista is the Online Content Specialist and resident blogger at Pagemodo. Loves social media, branding, whales. Get more from Sarah on Pagemodo’s Blog and Google+.

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