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Protect your image without breaking the bank

In this four-part series, we'll explore how businesses can build and manage their online reputations

Part Three: Managing your Web reputation

Sure, there are plenty of firms out there that will help companies manage their reputations online - for a price. But as with many segments of the technology industry, there are a few ways a small or medium-sized business can develop its own bare-bones - and relatively inexpensive - reputation management strategy.

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1. Monitor the social networks

Many customers today will take their complaints online, rather than deal with businesses directly or through customer support lines. Keeping tabs on what's said on forums such as Facebook and Twitter can go a long way toward finding and fixing a customer service problem before it becomes a crisis.

On sites such as Twitter, monitoring customer sentiment can be as simple as setting up a real-time search window with your company's name as the search term (virtually every third-party Twitter software, including the Twitter site itself, will let you do this). That way, you're updated as soon as someone mentions your business. There are also certain search engines, such as IceRocket that focus specifically on social networks such as Twitter and MySpace.

2. Monitor the recommendation engines

Many small businesses, especially restaurants, Laundromats and other service-providers, often see a large number of customers come or go depending on what's being said about the business on recommendation Web sites. For example, TripAdvisor has become hugely influential on travellers, who often check the sites to see what other customers have to say about hotels.

Perhaps the most well-known business recommendation site out there is Yelp , which has user recommendations for everything from pet grooming services to nightclubs. Increasingly, a bad review on a popular recommendation site can easily turn a potential customer off before they've learned anything else about a business. Some small business owners have gone so far as to challenge such sites and some of their users in court, while others have focused on fixing the issues addressed in customer complaints on the sites. Indeed, some small businesses now specifically ask satisfied customers to go on such sites and let people know about their good experience, in the hopes that such testimonials will help drum up more business.

3. Check your rank

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Search Engine Optimization is an entire field onto itself, concerned with maximizing a business' ranking when users search for related keywords on sites such as Google (for example, a Toronto hair salon will want their Web site to show up as high up in the results page as possible when somebody searches for "Toronto hair salons"). But SEO sometimes overlaps with reputation management, specifically when it comes to the results page for a business' name. For example, if someone searches for 'ABCD Car Parts,' the company will want its Web site to be the first search result returned. However, if someone has posted a complaint about ABCD Car Parts on a blog, and that blog gets a lot of links, the complaint may eventually become a prominent search result when a user searches for the company name. Keeping tabs on such search results not only helps a business owner know what others are saying about the company, but how much attention those comments are getting.

4. Every problem is an opportunity

The Web is full of examples of small customer complaints that eventually morphed into huge PR embarrassments for the companies involved, in large part because of inaction on the companies' parts. Youtube is full of cringe-worthy recordings of people trying to cancel their cell phone accounts or dispute charges, for example. Airlines that have treated customers badly often find those customers have written about their experiences in blogs, quickly attracting the attention of other users and forcing the airlines to apologize or face more bad publicity on-line.

However, companies are also finding that the opposite is true. Increasingly, angry customers are going to sites such as Twitter to try to get a company's attention, usually by posting a quick note to the business' Twitter account explaining their issue. The companies that do something about the complaint - even something as small as writing back acknowledging that they're looking into the problem - are starting to see previously unsatisfied users post positive messages about their experience, essentially letting other users know the company cares about its customers. Such unsolicited comments can turn out to be the best form of advertising for a business, and in the long run perhaps the most useful kind of reputation management.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Related articles can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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