Google Bomb: What Every Business (and Marketer) Should Know About Reputation Management and “Authority”

Sue Scheff, founder of child and parenting advocacy organization PURE, was astonished when someone began attacking her reputation online.  Scheff’s attacker posted comments on numerous Web forums in which Scheff was labled a “con artist,” leading to a lawsuit in which Sheff won $11.3 million. Although the case is hardly new, it’s receiving new attention in the form of a new book called “Google Bomb”  in which Scheff tells her story. The book is co-authored by veteran Internet Lawyer John W. Dozier Jr. In it, Dozier offers expert tips for guarding against online revenge seekers.

Although Google Bomb is aimed at individuals, its lessons are just as relevant to businesses. Much has changed since Scheff’s attacks in the early 2000s that leave businesses open to online slander.

Consider these 4 points:

  • Google Dominance – Just when it looked like Bing was ready to make serious inroads on the search market, comScore measurements show Google actually pulling away from its search competitors again (Bing still appears to be primarily taking market share from Yahoo). At least for the near term, Google’s version of relevance about your business will likely be taken as “the truth.” It’s important to monitor the first two pages of search results regularly.
  • Google is Your Home Page – Depending on the industry (and who’s conducting the study), between 55-67% of Web users begin product or service research at a search engine. This fact alone illustrates just how much Web users trust Google to serve up relevant and accurate information.
  • Business Directory Dominance – It’s very difficult to beat a good quality directory on search terms, meaning that customer reviews on such directories can create a first impression can make or break a sale. In many cases, negative reviews are viewable in Google search results without a user needing to click through to see them. It’s important to monitor reviews on major directories on a regular basis. In many cases, contacting angry customers through these services can lead not only to the diffusion of the situation, but also to the removal of the negative review.  Real-world examples of companies doing just this were published in a recent New York Times article.
  • Social Media Dominance – At the time Scheff was victimized, she could actually find most of the abuse by using standard search engines. That could never happen today. Considering the hundreds of millions of users creating much of their Web conversations behind password-protected social networks each day, it’s much tougher for an average business owner to stay on top of their online reputation.  Specialized software or services designed specifically to monitor and report on social media networks are needed.

For businesses seeking to improve their online reputation, the most frustrating aspect of online reputation management for businesses may be the concept of Web site “authority.” Authority rankings are critical to search engine ranking for popular key terms and are derived from a number of different factors, including the age of a Web domain, the number of other authoritative sites that link to a specific page, the anchor text used during that linkage, and much more. When a Web site with a high authority ranking displays a negative review or comment from an abusive critic, it can be very difficult to overcome.

The real problem is that “authority” often has nothing to do with “expertise,” which can lead to a lone abuser’s sharply placed comments leading to trouble. Until around 2005, it was relatively easy to solve a reputation management problem by creating or optimizing a number of competing Web sites or pages and quickly pushing them to the top of search results, thereby burying the negative content.  While these questionable tactics were useful for reputation management purposes, they damaged the overall search relevancy for everyone (this is just one reason not to engage in tactics that attempt to “trick” search engines).

Today successful online reputation management involves a multi-pronged approach including direct contact with the abuser and/or Webmasters of problem sites, enhanced social media profiles, Web content optimization, PR, domain registration and many other tactics. If an abusive online situation gets bad enough, there’s often no choice but using an attorney, or an SEO firm, or both.



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