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Reputation Crises Management: 8 SEO Triage Tips

reputation-managementThe “please can you help us” cold calls we receive from distraught business are increasing in frequency and frightfully similar.

The frustrated caller explains that some former employee, customer or other provocateur has published damaging editorial content which indexes prominently in Google for direct brand and other important keyword searches.

The results can be disastrous, ranging from bruised feelings to tens (or hundreds) of millions in lost sales. Whilst creating an intentional reputation monitoring/management plan ahead of time is certainly optimal, usually by the time we get the call the business is already bleeding profusely.

Depending on the SEO skill level of the villain, their determination and the authority of the site on which the damaging diatribe was published, the offending results can be buggers for businesses to cleanse themselves.

Enter the SEO sharpshooter specialist, focused on attaining organic prominence as quickly as possible under pressure. The objective is to push the nasty content as far down the SERPs as possible and, if necessary, debunk the credibility of the damning editorial.

Ironically the tactics we reach for in crises are very similar to any other SEO campaign. Competitive intelligence, content publishing, link building, taking inventory of digital assets for universal search and leveraged power of social channels are among classic tools of the trade. What differentiates crises management is the sense of urgency, pressure to perform, legal options and the obvious downside to failure. Here are 8 time tested tips for SEO triage sharpshooters:

  1. Evaluate the authority of the page on which the negative content is published. As with any SEO assignment, start by taking a look at PageRank and inbound links profile using Yahoo Site Explorer and other tools. If the offending result is not on a site’s homepage, then take a careful look at older and similar interior pages along with their archives.

    Google’s algorithmic regard for any page tends to accumulate over time as a result of numerous factors, known and “black box.” Therefore it’s a good idea to keep in mind that any page’s clout might increase over time. Be advised and plan accordingly.

    Reciprocally if the problem content is currently indexing on a blog’s homepage, the difficulty may be mitigated when the post cycles off the homepage into archives. While the post is on the homepage, its content has the full “weight” of the homepage’s authority.

    This won’t be the case in archive unless the post generates great links. That said many blogs’ category pages, author and date archives accumulate PageRank and you might have to wait a while for the post to cycle even deeper into to site over time. (Note: PageRank isn’t everything but it’s better to have it than not.)
  2. Since some offending results violate copyright or trademark laws, a strong understanding of and willingness to utilize legal channels can be important arrows in the SEO sharpshooter’s quiver. Sometimes the first salvo we fire is from our client’s law firm in the form of a cease and desist letter.

    Be aware of laws as pertain to protected marks and intellectual property. Certainly taking the legal route can yield results and sometimes the expense makes sense. Our legal team has scared many an idiot off our client’s back. Some rouges just don’t want to mess with lawyers and can be “encouraged” to take down their problem content.

    On the other hand be a realist. Some insolent jerk halfway around the world won’t give a rat’s ass about your attorney’s saber rattling. Sometimes firing legal missals can even result in your opponent digging in their heals with an intransigent disregard for reality.

    When nasty search engine results stem from social media channels, it can be impossible to locate the villain let alone engage them legally. Social site moderators often couldn’t care less because they thrive on the passionate engagement which surrounds controversy. StumbleUpon (eBay) is the worst as they are nearly completely unwilling to enforce Terms of Services as pertain to abusive “troll” users.
  3. Determine the likelihood that the substance of proposed defensive content will further provoke and backfire virally. We find it’s best if newly created content and subsequent promotional activity do not appear to be directly related to the problem we’re competing with.

    My grandmother used to tell me never to “get into a pissing contest with a skunk. Even if you win…you stink. “Instead, create defensive content that builds on strengths of your business to contradict the negatives raised by a bad editorial. Build your content to outrank the perpetrator’s.

    Though we never take directly refuting offensive results off the table fully, one needs to be extremely careful. We don’t want 5 other bloggers to rally behind their jerky friend and take up a damaging cause they hadn’t even noticed before.
  4. Unless you’re an expert, talk to a professional before engaging directly in social channels surrounding the problem results. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen a business person, who has no experience in social media, climb into a comments thread and make things SO much worse. There are very few instances when taking a step back and counting to 10 will negatively impact the end result of defensive activities.

    If you’re not a regular contributer in a specific social media channel, learning the vernacular while under duress is not the best choice. Also we’ve seen clients make legal mistakes publicly which made a difficult problem much worse. Call an SEO/social media expert. Call your lawyer. Have a glass of wine and some sushi. Chill.
  5. If direct engagement in social channels makes sense, attempt to earn the provocateurs respect by your response. Every disaster is an opportunity in the making and vice versa. Whilst measured righteous indignation can be a powerful tool, start with classic high road messages of respect and understanding: “I understand your position,” “respect your right to express your feelings in public,” “am grateful for the opportunity to engage in a dialog” and “what can we do to make things right?”
  6. Take the high road over and over. Then take the high road again. If that doesn’t work…you can always nuke em’. There are white hat methods and other, ummmm, not-white hat methods available to “eliminate” the problem. Given recent furor over public discussion of non-candy-ass SEO tactics you’ll have to contact me directly to discuss the options further.
  7. Consider paid search as a stopgap and/or ongoing strategy. When weighing the cost of PPC to circumvent damaging organic results, paid search is often an attractive “lesser of all evils’ option, especially in the short term while waiting for other solutions to come online. Google’s content network, in the hands of a site-targeting expert, can be a highly effective channel-especially when clarifying or refuting mainstream damage in news, niche’ and social channels.
  8. Get back to SEO basics. The best defense is a good offense. In reality it should be difficult for idiots to crack into direct brand search results if your website is optimized properly.

    One of our newer clients came to us under assault from a disgruntled former customer. It didn’t make sense at first because the offensive result was on a PR zero site with little authority.

    Upon evaluation we quickly ascertained that our client’s website was entirely a Flash movie, literally with no deep indexing. Solving the “crises” was as simple as re-publishing the site in HTML with Flash elements instead of a full Flash movie.

With the rampant proliferation of user-generated content, the opportunity for disgruntled malcontents to damage your firm’s reputation increases everyday. Make sure to evaluate the extent of the problem, consider legal options, and stay within your comfort zone. Take the high road whenever possible, treat your opponent with respect and consider paid search as a stopgap or ongoing prophylactic measure.

Above all, remember that when talking about reputation management in the organic SERPs, you’re talking on-demand SEO. The best defense is a robust offense so make sure the strength of your site’s optimization makes it harder for anyone to even get on the SERPs for direct brand search. Finally, don’t make things worse by biting off more than you can chew. Engage an expert instead.

Marty Weintraub is publisher of aimClear Blog and President of aimClear, a search focused advertising agency serving international clients from Duluth, Minnesota.

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7 Comments

  1. Search Engine Optimization Journal on July 8, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    These are great tips. Online reputation management is so new to many companies and they must understand that one slip up truly can cost them more than they bargained for. Great article!

  2. Barry Welford on July 9, 2008 at 1:51 am

    This is an excellent guide, Marty, for those finding themselves in this difficult situation. One excellent resource is your own business blog if your company is already engaging in constructive dialogues with your market place. As you said, the high road is always the best road.

  3. Kim Krause Berg (cre8pc) on July 9, 2008 at 2:34 am

    With Marty’s permission, here is a discussion we’re having on this topic at Cre8asiteforums (by some odd coincidence) – http://www.cre8asiteforums.com/forums/index.php?s=&showtopic=64045&view=findpost&p=272264

    I added Marty’s fantastic article to our discussion. It will help many. Thanks for the tips Marty!

  4. Marty Weintraub on July 9, 2008 at 10:34 am

    @Barry: Yes the company blog is an outstanding place to have such conversations. Thank you for the insight.

    @Kim: I just check out the Cre8 thread and hope our readers to as well. Thanks for stopping by all.

  5. Tom on July 10, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Nice post Marty! Would love to hear more about your tactics on removing pages from the search results. Is this something you’d be willing to share via email or is this the kind of thing you only share with clients?

  6. Marty Weintraub on July 10, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    @Tom: Thank you for your comment. Seeing as your website is about politics, one would understand why you might want results removed :) . Though some approaches are “out there” regarding black hat techniques to remove results from the Google index. We don’t do it or advocate for it.

    That said, we sure know people who do. Google facilitates abuse by way of their “rat on others” mentality of spam fighting, the way they assess bad neighborhoods and other quirks of their spam prevention methodologies. Again (Mr. Cutts) we would never game Google.

    Keep in mind, there are a myriad of methods to nuke an offensive page and/or author in the SERPs and communities with varying degrees of risk both socially and technically. Quite a few have been presented in public and blogged about.

    I’ve been attacked with a number of really colorful methods personally. Really making such decisions is about risk assessment…potentially acceptable for some and not advisable for brands who take careful pride in their reputation.

    Where do political marketers fall on THAT continuum?

  7. Tom on July 11, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Yeah, certainly a lot of those tactics have been talked about before. I’d love to investigate further but just don’t have the time and can’t justify it on most client projects so I don’t have much first-hand experience. It’s a fascinating topic though. Once of those things which (obviously) only ever gets discussed in the abstract in public.

    As for where politicians stand on the whole ethics debate, well…. no comment! :-p

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