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Online reputation management (‘ORM’) is in vogue. LinkedIn records a 38 percent growth in people recording the term named as a skill or expertise. A veritable cottage industry of agencies and individuals has sprouted to service the swelling ranks of organisations that keep them from going hungry.

Help for what? What exactly is ORM?

LinkedIn describes ORM as: “the practice of monitoring the Internet reputation of a person, brand or business, with the goal of suppressing negative mentions entirely, or pushing them lower on search engine results pages to decrease their visibility,” a definition supported by a search on Google or a conversation with digital or other agencies offering ORM services.

Basic Online Reputation Management framework

In this scenario, ORM can too easily appear to be a dark art practised by shady search/SEO specialists and underhand PR types for organizations with dodgy practices experiencing crises or social media campaigns running amok.

As it is seen and practised today, ORM appears to be based on two key assumptions:

  1. That online reputations are made or lost on the first two pages of Google, Baidu, or Naver
  2. That online reputations are somehow distinct from your broader reputation, and that ORM can succeed in isolation from other communications activities.

These assumptions are mistaken for the following reasons:

  • Important as search engines are to the consumer purchase path and in breaking news situations, other channels such as social networks and micro-blogs are increasingly critical access points to the Internet as a whole. And while customers may use search engines frequently to conduct research and purchase, stakeholders such as journalists, business partners, and government officials may be using other channels. An ORM strategy has to incorporate all key access points relevant to the audiences in question.
  • “Originating” sources of information are more trusted than the access points themselves, requiring an integrated approach to broader reputation management and ORM. The top originating sources, according to Nielsen, are word of mouth, online consumer reviews and opinions, editorial content, and branded websites. Word of mouth, so critical in emerging markets and Asia, is typically highly diffuse, ranging across social networks, micro-blogs, and a host of other channels. Online customer reviews play an increasingly important role in framing product and brand perceptions and when negative can travel far and wide, including to the mainstream media. Newspapers and broadcasters continue to play an important role in decision-making and reputation, not least during or after a crisis, when they continue to be seen as the most credible and authoritative voice. It also takes some serious gaming of Google to push a cover story from the top business media down the search rankings.

In addition to core search engine optimisation (as well as de-optimisation, as PR people are apt to describe the burying of bad news), a broader-ranging and sustainable approach to ORM is required that is consistent with an organisation’s broader corporate and/or brand reputation strategy – as opposed to a much-need fix of online visibility (and budget) when the shit hits the proverbial fan.

Some key questions should be asked to inform a firm’s broader ORM (and overall reputation) strategy. These might usefully include:

  • Who is the target audience(s)?
  • Who/what are their preferred information sources?
  • Who are the key players, i.e., influencers in these activities/conversations, and what are their needs, requirements, and preferences?
  • What are the objectives – to build, manage, or recover reputation?
  • What does success look like and how can it be measured?
  • How is your online reputation currently being tracked, if at all? Is it aligned with your broader corporate and/or brand reputation tracking and performance? What are the benefits and limitations of your current system(s)?

Successful ORM also requires the assigned team or teams – be it the PR agency, digital agency, media agency, or in-house – to work more closely with other relevant teams and to have a common goal.

As companies, governments and individuals suffer online through poor customer service and product quality, social marketing campaigns running amok or employees saying and doing things they should not on Facebook, Online Reputation Management (‘ORM’) is attracting a lot of digital ink.

Yet the principles and practices of ORM remain poorly defined.

Most organisations, big and small, that I talk to believe it is about cleaning up the top 20 search engine results when they’re under the harsh glare of an issue or crisis.

Given that reputations are won, lost and recovered well beyond the confines of Google or Baidu, companies must take a broader and deeper view of ORM. Importantly, it should be aligned it with their corporate and/or brand reputation strategy.

Here’s the first in a series on this topic produced for ClickZ.

The full series will also be published on this blog.

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