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What is online reputation and how do you make it better (or worse)?

It’s an inescapable fact in this highly-digitised world that every person, every company and every organisation has an online reputation.

Given the significant impact it can have on many facets of organisational success, it is no surprise that many brands and companies are already taking action to improve their online reputation.

Online reputation is not the same as online presence

In essence, an online reputation is the net impact of all the things, positive or negative, which an internet user can find about your company.

In general, content which appears on websites which are high-quality, trusted and popular, carries more weight than those items which are in less prominent places. Nonetheless, in a world where something tweeted by one Twitter user may be quickly shared widely and then reproduced on other social media platforms and in journalistic media, every piece of content has the potential to be damaging.

The fact that content spreads so quickly online these days is both a blessing and a curse; an online reputation can quickly be tarnished. Even in such a situation, there is the potential to begin to recover quickly by proactively creating and disseminating your own, positive content.

Your online reputation is not the same as your online presence. Perhaps you have a website and social media channels which provide useful information and positive content. That’s great, but the simple fact of positive content being available does not necessarily outweigh any bad reviews, negative search results or other problematic items linked to your company.

An online reputation might be a fairly accurate representation of your organisation, its services, standards and reliability. Or it could also be a distortion of the real situation, whether more negative than is deserved, or more positive than reality.

What does an online reputation really mean in practice?

Having a positive online reputation can help you attract new customers, clients, partners or recruits, as well as retain and engage ones you already have.

It can also reduce organisational risk through a sort of halo effect. If you are facing potential criticism, but the information that your potential critic finds about you online is generally positive, then this may calm or completely avoid the situation; a journalist feels this story isn’t worth writing, a campaigner decides that public support is likely to be on your side, and so on.

Having a negative online reputation, meanwhile, increases the risks of key stakeholders and relationships losing confidence in your organisation, and could scare off new or potential customers. This is particularly the case if your competitors have a better online reputation; a key online reputation management service which Alder offers is benchmarking, allowing clients to understand where they stand in relation to their peers.

Let’s be clear; no organisations have the luxury of having only positive content online, and never getting any bad reviews. Nobody has an entirely positive online reputation, and it would be wrong to aim for this.

For some brands, perhaps the best they can aim for is damage limitation. That might sound bad, but it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Having a few negative search results against your name is never desirable, but online reputations of all sorts can be managed and improved – we’ll come on to how later.

Online reputation is relative

An online reputation will be differently perceived by different people. For example, a customer of a major retailer will seek (and find) different information online than someone who is researching how to get their product stocked in store, or someone considering investing in the retailer, or a politician with a role in regulating the retail sector.

It’s also the case that online reputation is not the only type of reputation. For a company which operates in the digital sphere, such as Amazon or Google, their online reputation is going to be a more significant part of their overall reputation than is the case for a local, bricks and mortar shop with no online operation. It is important for an organisation to understand how much of a risk online reputation potentially poses.

The answer to that question partly depends on how strong their overall reputation is. Perhaps you have a very strong, long-standing, hard-earned reputation among key customers and clients. They might not be impressed if your online reputation deteriorates, but that might be of relatively little importance if your offline (‘in real life’) dealings with those organisations continue to be high-quality.

An organisation may maintain a good overall reputation, but have a problematic online reputation, although the latter may well catch up with the former before long.

How should you deal with negative online reviews and criticism?

Two of the key players in determining whether an online reputation is positive or negative are review sites, and social media platforms.

If your brand or organisation is regularly chastised in online reviews or by social media profiles, or lots of negative content appears online, then there are a number of questions to ask. As ever in reputation management, there are no black and white answers, but these questions provide an important starting point.

Is the negative review accurate? While you might aspire to only ever receive positive reviews of your products and services, this is unlikely to happen. Constructive criticism is useful; if criticism levelled against you is fair, then the best way to avoid it being repeated is to fix the customer service or product issue at hand, if possible.

How frequent and visible is the negative content? If the negative content only rarely appears, or is only found in places which are not particularly relevant to your key audiences, then its negative impact may be minimal. This is especially the case if it is outweighed by positive or neutral feedback. Nonetheless, it is important to keep an eye on it, especially if it increases in volume or frequency, or the people responsible for that content decide to move to a different platform.

Would third parties see the criticism as legitimate and accurate? Perhaps you’re a hotel and you’ve been criticised for the fact it was raining, or that the sun rose too early in the morning. Perhaps a criticism has been made which is risibly, implausibly, patently untrue. This can probably be laughed off, but it is important to check it is not part of a concerted effort to undermine your organisation.

Would it matter to the people who matter? Perhaps some negativity is being directed to your organisation by people who have a long history of being hostile to you. Well-informed stakeholders, loyal customers and longstanding allies might be totally indifferent to this. But those who are not as familiar with the situation might find it off-putting.

To what extent do we have capacity for replying to them? And what might be the impact of replying? It’s important to have clear rules around replying to or reacting to negative online information. These rules don’t have to be rigid, but they should provide a framework. In forming these rules, a really important question is what responding to these bad reviews might do? Would they make the critics stop? If done badly, it may make them feel validated and result in renewed criticism.

Is there a mechanism for responding to these criticisms, either publicly or privately, or an ethical way of getting them hidden, removed, or made less visible?

These mechanisms are specific to each platform. Consider carefully the implications of hiding a comment – the person involved might feel that they are being censored or silenced, and start shouting more loudly.

Is the criticism libellous or in violation of the rules of a platform? There is a reason this is the last question in the list. While libel laws are notoriously difficult to apply, and a legal approach is rarely a sensible online reputation management strategy, this is worth considering in some cases. Even if not libellous, it is worth understanding platform-specific rules, such as those around personal information or language used. Of course, some platforms are very bad at enforcing the rules in place, but it may be useful to understand how likely they are to act on reports.

What about old news articles or issues from many years ago?

As well as more recent social media and review site comments, an organisation may suffer due to mentions of your brand in old news articles, or content relating to issues from the distant past.

Generally speaking, news organisations and journalists are highly unlikely to remove old articles. That said, if something is inaccurate, then they should consider amending or adding a clarification. There are occasions on which it is worth considering attempting to have negative information, whether journalistic articles or other content, removed or changed.  It is also possible in some scenarios to fix negative search results with the right technological support. This is a highly specialised area though, and you should not instruct anyone to do this without taking advice.

However, an article that rarely shows up in search results, or is clearly historic in nature, may not be a major concern. In such cases, a more proactive strategy if you are worried about negative sentiment is to create positive online content, to show potential customers and other stakeholders that you have moved on, and learned the lessons.

The best online reputation management service will always be a mixture of proactive and reactive. On the one hand, you need to create positive content and sow the seeds of improved future reputation. At the same time, you have to react to what is already out there.

The other thing that a reputation management service needs to be is bespoke. What is important for one company, and what is effective, will be totally different for another. Managing an online reputation is not easy, but done well it can be transformational.

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