Entrepreneurs take great pains to cultivate and maintain a strong and squeaky-clean brand online.
The concept of online reputation management has become increasingly crucial in an age of Yelp reviews, anonymous blog comments and rampant social networking. It’s imperative that company leaders respond rapidly to negative reviews and online complaints.
Many entrepreneurs and marketing experts are clear on the need for consistent and thorough online reputation-management strategies. But even the most well-seasoned veterans are grappling with an emerging battleground: Google Suggest and its cohort, Google Instant.
This automated-suggest feature is in some ways changing the way we search online. Google Suggest provides users with search-term suggestions shaped by local and global search patterns. Google Instant predicts results as the user types.
For consumers, it’s a keystroke-saving function that at times seems to double as a mind reader. But for companies, Google Suggest can lead to some serious reputation and brand-image problems. Combating them requires a commitment to make online reputation management an essential element of future marketing efforts.
The Perils of Google Suggest
The concern is one of control.
Negative Google Suggest terms associated with your brand can immediately turn off potential consumers. Some companies have already seen phrases like “scam” or “is a rip off” become attached to their names in Google Suggest.
Here’s a more extreme example in a search related to telecom giant Comcast. Imagine, for the sake of example, that the user planned to search “Comcast ISP,” with the latter term short for “Internet Service Provider.” Before the user can type the P, here’s what Google Suggest returns:
Needless to say, "slow", "issues", and "terrible" are all words you probably don’t want associated with your company.
Granted, Comcast is a multibillion-dollar behemoth, one of those companies that consumers love to gripe about. But local businesses and more community-focused entrepreneurs certainly aren’t immune.
Google Suggest gathers information from multiple data points. The famously tight-lipped company doesn’t provide a full break down, but likely sources include page content, frequency of the search term, and feedback from the news and social media spheres.
The continued use of local search data may soon bring the headaches of Google Suggest to smaller doorsteps. All it might take is a few unhappy customers who take to blogs, review sites, or other locales to publicly complain about your “scam” or your “horrible” product or service. Suddenly, a visit to Google turns into a brand management nightmare.
Tips for Handling Google Suggest
This is one of those areas where, to borrow a sports cliché, the best defense is a good offense. Here are a few tips for warding off potential problems with Google Suggest and online reputation management:
- Be Vigilant
Social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter have ushered in a new era of interaction between consumers and business owners. Instead of writing letters or berating customer service representatives, today’s aggrieved consumers head straight to the Web. Entrepreneurs need to be on top of their online reputation. Set up Google Alerts and detailed Twitter searches to scour company mentions. Respond quickly to complaints and questions and go as far as reasonably possible to rectify customer issues.
Don’t let negative reviews and blog comments linger without a response. If someone bad mouths your company in a comment field or blog post, ask the site owner for an opportunity to reply.
- Be Proactive
Unashamedly embrace self-promotion. Pump out good news about your company via press releases, blog posts, and social media feeds. Showcase your customer testimonials. Flooding the market with positive news can help counteract some of the negative comments.
Consider buying additional web domains to safeguard your company from attacks by spurned consumers or even nasty competitors. See if “CompanyXscam.com,” “CompanyXreviews.com” and other variations of your brand are available and snatch them up. Use them to show off your glowing customer reviews or just keep them offline and out of mind. We pursued this exact track for our VA loan company.
It’s also probably a good idea to refrain from repeatedly searching things like “Company X scam.” The last thing you want to do is create your own negative feedback loop.
- Be Honest
Admit when you’ve messed up or failed to live up to your high expectations. Be transparent with consumers, both prospective and returning. It’s unrealistic to expect every customer is a satisfied one.
For most companies, isolated negative comments and reviews on blogs and websites are simply part of doing business. You can’t make everyone happy. But Google Suggest and Google Instant make it worth trying.
Chris Birk is director of content and communications for VA Mortage Center.com, the nation's No. 1 dedicated VA lender. A recovering journalist, he also teaches at a private Midwestern university. Follow him @cjbirk.