How to clean up your business's online reputation

Keeping tabs on your company's online reputation is one thing. But angry customers trash-talking your business can sabotage your good name overnight. It's no easy task to minimize the damage done from the Web equivalent of the slam book.

The following tried-and-true tactics can help you get public opinion of your business back on track. The best piece of advice? Start thinking about damage control before you need these tips.

Be proactive

One of the key tenets of managing your online reputation is finessing what happens when people search for you on Google and other search sites. In many ways, online reputation management is a basic SEO problem.

Among the most challenging concerns: Someone has panned your product or company in a blog post or some other online forum, and that post is showing up at or near the top of Google results. Even if Web searchers don't click the link, merely seeing the headline alone ("Bob's Widgets are junk!") can turn away potential customers, devastating sales.

There's a reason you won't find gripes early in the search results for this pizza-chain brand.

The most-advised approach here is to use SEO strategies to push that post down the results, at least below the fold. Yet that's easier said than done, and it requires advance planning. Michael Zammuto, COO and president of ReputationChanger.com, recommends locking in alternate suffixes for your domain (.net, .org, and so on), as early as you can. "Use a free CMS such as WordPress to build them out," he adds. If you're extremely concerned, add BusinessNameSucks.com and other variants to your shopping list and redirect those sites to your primary page.

On top of that, make sure your business is registered on every major social network, under the full name of the business. This includes Completed.com, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Twitter. Saturate the Web with your presence. If you're active on the sites (regular, automated updates can do wonders), these pages will also rank well and tend to push down negative comments. Finally, make sure that you've claimed your Google Places account, and that it is accurate.

The key with all of these strategies is to get them ready early. If you wait until negative reviews and comments start showing up online, mitigating the damage will be far tougher.

Respond on Yelp to thank a positive reviewer--but resist the urge to reply to a pan.

Don't feed the trolls

Let's say you have someone trashing you on Twitter, their blog, or an online forum. How do you respond? Online commenters are notoriously as stubborn as they are vocal. The trick to mitigating damage from online grousing is knowing when to put up a fight and when to walk away.

Advice on dealing with negative online comments—or "trolls"—isn't unanimous, and different experts offer different strategies.

Zammuto recommends simply not engaging when at all possible. "Don't respond to online complaint boards," says Zammuto. "This just increases strength of listings and invites more attacks."

The picture is a little different if the commentary is taking place on your own blog, your Facebook page, or your Twitter account. Here, you control the battlefield, and if a comment is truly damaging, inflammatory, or slanderous, you can always delete it. (Although it's a common strategy, bear in mind that this tactic can have its own fallout by branding you a quasher of free speech.)

If you don't want to delete a comment, you can fairly easily bury it. A negative note on your Facebook page or Twitter feed will rapidly fall off the radar if you post another dozen updates. Comments on blog posts are also quickly lost as you publish more and more follow-up posts. While these things tend to live forever in Google's search results, fresher content is what the vast majority of your visitors and customers will see.

Next page: When and how should you respond to negative reviews?

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