If you do a search for ‘online reputation management’ you will find thousands of people offering services to help you avoid getting into trouble and to get out of trouble when your online reputation is in tatters. This sector didn’t even exist, of course, until Google came along so it’s very young and filled with young, social-media aware people offering a wide range of technological solutions to your woes.
You will also notice that ALL of these people offer the same two services. First, they offer you a reputation-monitoring service (often trying to sell you one kind of software or another). Second, they offer to use SEO (‘Search Engine Optimisation’) techniques to bury the bad news about you so it won’t appear when people search Google for your name, company or products.
These approaches are both fundamentally flawed and here’s why.
Firstly, the ‘reputation monitoring’ solutions are usually build by young, technically-minded, social-media-obsessed people. They are difficult to understand, configure or interpret for most business people above the age of 40. And even when they do make sense, all they do is bring reputation issues to the attention of more people. What’s wrong with that you might ask? I’ll tell you.
In my experience, almost every reputation problem has at its core a failure of communication skills on the part of the business concerned. Yes, that’s right: no matter how unfair your customers’ reactions might seem, most problems stem from a lack of listening skills, accountability, empathy, assertiveness or simply politeness on your part. Nothing about the reputation monitoring software sold to you will equip you with the skills the lack of which got you into this problem in the first place. Quite the opposite, in fact. Such reputation management tools don’t teach people how to interact with people better, they simply lead them towards technological solutions.
And that’s the second part of my objection to the dominant approach to ‘online reputation management’. If you do that search, you’ll see that everyone offers to bury the bad news for you. Not to help you understand what went wrong and put it right. No, to bury the bad news. Like a dog covering it’s poop. The same people who sold you the reputation monitoring tool will now offer to push the negative references to you off the first few pages and replace it with positive stuff.
What they don’t admit to themselves (far less tell YOU) is that this promise is a) impossible to deliver and b) completely undesirable for a number of reasons.
This promise is impossible because you cannot ‘spam’ Google indefinitely. No matter how many people in India you have creating bogus blog content online and seeding it with links to good stuff about you, Google’s algorithm is constantly changing to ensure a genuine ‘relevance’ value that will ensure the health of the advertising environment it offers its clients. Online reputation management spammers do not feature in this picture very highly. In simple terms, an online reputation management expert who promises to push off high-profile news reports on, say, the Telegraph’s website is misleading you.
And beyond that it is undesirable for the following simple reasons: firstly because the practice creates a highly-visible ‘whitewash’ effect – a pile of innocuous-looking and meaningless blog-junk floating suspiciously at the top of Google for your name / brand / products. Read individually, the casual reader might pass over these articles but anyone doing due diligence will recognise immediately that you’re covering something up; that you’re trying to bury bad news. And that smell of rotten fish will do more harm than the original problem. Remember, everyone can forgive you screwing up once in a while. But what will turn them away permanently is discovering that when things go wrong, you get dishonest.
And finally – and this is the bit that doesn’t even get a look-in from any online reputation manager that I’ve ever seen – this kind of behaviour is undesirable because in taking the ‘try-to-cover-up’ approach, you miss the biggest opportunity of all: the chance to learn how to do your business differently; how to demonstrate your ability to listen, learn and put things right. This passes up an opportunity to turn critics into advocates and enhance your reputation in the only way that matters: as positive word-of-mouth opinion from people who you have surprised and delighted. And nothing delights people more than a difficult situation turning into a positive experience that leaves them happy.
There are those who might say that if the average businessman with a stinging reputation problem wants nothing more than a quick ‘fix’ then it’s no surprise that the industry jumps to offer him what he wants. I beg to differ: first of all, I don’t think that good business people really do want a quick ‘fix’ when you get under the surface and second, it ain’t no ‘fix’ at all when you examine it more closely.