In this four-part series, we'll explore how businesses can build and manage their online reputations
Part Two: Managing your Web reputation
Relatively unheard of just a few years ago, online reputation management has grown into a multi million-dollar industry, fuelled by the rising number of consumers who research their purchasing choices on the Web. As such, small and medium-sized business owners looking for reputation management solutions now have a large number of free and paid options to choose from.
The oldest and perhaps best-known online reputation management firms is Reputation.com, previously known as Reputation Defender. The company's products are designed for consumers and businesses, and tend to focus on the three major areas of reputation management.
The first is keeping certain information private, or not readily accessible on the Web - for businesses, such information includes the personal phone and address of the staff or owner, for example.
The second is improving the results that come up when a user searches for the company name or related topic. That aspect of reputation management can sometimes overlap with search engine optimization - the process of trying to get a company's Web site to appear as early as possible when a user searches for certain key terms. However, reputation management mostly focuses on all the highest-ranking results for terms related to a company.
Indeed, the third and perhaps most important aspect of reputation management involves countering or taking down online information deemed counter to a company or individual's interest.
One of Reputation.com's most famous cases involved such a task. In 2006, an 18-year-old named Nikki Catsouras was killed when she crashed her father's sports car into a toll booth in California. California Highway Patrol employees leaked the gruesome accident photos onto the Internet, and Ms. Catsouras' family hired Reputation Defender to help remove them from myriad Web sites. Reputation.com estimates they helped take down some 2500 copies of the photos.
Since Reputation.com started up in 2006, the field has grown a lot more specialized. Companies such as Hotel Advantage specialize in reputation monitoring for the hospitality industry; hotels and restaurants tend to be the most vulnerable to negative commentary online, because of the growing number of review Web sites that cater to travellers and tourists. On such sites, one user's negative review can often cost a business considerable amounts of money in lost sales.
Such review sites have become even more important to small businesses recently because a number of major search engines are taking steps to factor positive and negative reviews in the way they rank search results. The move comes after a number of high-profile cases in which certain companies have managed to boost their online presence by accumulating overwhelmingly negative comments on review sites.
Perhaps the most famous case involves DecorMyEyes.com, a glasses-frame Web site that became the subject of countless negative reviews complaining of everything from poor service to personal threats against customers. Regardless, the site's owner took to one customer complaints Web site to urge the angry customers on, saying all the mentions of his company's name helped push them higher in Web search results.
Businesses have also been increasing the focus of their reputation management efforts on social sites such as Twitter. Many more companies tend to do this type of reputation management in-house. Because Twitter relies heavily on keywords, companies can simply use a tool such as TweetDeck to monitor any mentions of the company name, and in some cases respond to each user's tweet individually. Companies ranging from franchise restaurant Freshii to cable giant Comcast have taken that approach.
Companies are also starting to monitor the general sentiment on Twitter by looking at classifying negative and positive comments in the context of Tweets. There are some very basic versions of such tools available for free on-line, such as Twitter Sentiment and TweetFeel. While still in the early stages of development, social sentiment analysis could prove to be the most useful way of gauging how customers feel about a business.
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