Is online reputation management really a ‘Dark Art’?
It’s ironic that Bell Pottinger – the guardian of many reputations – is currently dealing with its own reputation issue.
Reports suggesting Bell Pottinger could manipulate Google results to drown out negative coverage of Uzbek human rights violations and child labour have damaged the reputation of reputation management. Although the PR industry has a power to influence, this influence is limited. If the truth is dark and nasty, the truth will out eventually.
Nonetheless, this debate has placed the practice of online reputation management at the top of the news agenda… and at the top of search engine rankings. But is it really such a ‘dark art’? Perhaps it’s time someone lifted the veil.
Contemporary reputation management requires a new combination of PR, search marketing and social media expertise. As the Bell Pottinger news shows, it also requires a large dollop of social responsibility. Social media and search-led reputation management tactics, however, come into their own when used on less political territory.
Littlewoods’ seasonal spirit has been seriously dented by a backlash against its Christmas ad, criticised en-masse for being materialistic and destroying the mystique of Father Christmas. The backlash mainly happened online, spearheaded by the likes of Mumsnet. Such negative online coverage had a serious impact on the retailer’s all-important Christmas period Google rankings. At the end of November – a peak Christmas shopping week – a quick search for ‘Littlewoods Christmas’ returned a results page headed by the phrase “I think this is disgusting…”. Not quite what Littlewoods had on its Christmas list.
The power of online forums and bloggers, like Mumsnet, neatly illustrates how reputation management has been radically changed by the internet… and, more recently, by social media. In the past, companies and public figures could largely protect their carefully built reputations by controlling the traditional media, using ‘exclusives’ as a negotiating tool. But uncontrollable consumers now wield a significant portion of a brands’ PR power.
With the rise of social media, anyone can now become a publisher, meaning that PR can no longer completely control a brand or person’s publicity. And this is happening at a time when consumers are more likely than ever to start their brand journey with Google.
So how can PR control the agenda on the search engines? What do companies, brands or public figures do when negative news, blog entries and Twitter comments begin to dominate search results and social media channels?
High visibility and rankings of positive messages are the ultimate goals. This pushes negative news sources, blogs and gripe sites down search engine listings and so reduces their impact.
There are three key weapons: PPC (pay per click) advertising through Google AdWords (the ads that appear at the top, bottom and side of a Google page); SEO (search engine optimization), which influences what appears in the natural or organic search results (the main body of the Google results page); and finally, social media optimization, where the platforms and properties that are indexed easily by Google are correctly indexed so that their results appear on page one of the search results pages.
Should these tactics really be described as ‘dark arts’? PPC, SEO and social media optimisation techniques are used every day, even by the most innocuous of corporations, people and brands. Every entity with an online profile is subject to them… from washing powder brands right through to internet masters, like Lady Gaga. Search and social media optimisation tactics are an inevitable reality in the era of digital marketing.
The crucial factor is, what context are they being used in? Is it ‘fair’ for a brand to do everything it can to ensure higher rankings than its competitor? Is it OK for a falsely accused business to use every trick at its disposal to knock that false accusation to the bottom of a Google page? Is it morally acceptable for a communications agency to disguise a country’s politically sanctioned abuse with some cunning web tactics?
It’s a complex debate… almost as complex as Google’s algorithm itself. But to label search and social media optimisation as a ‘dark art’ is naïve. The tricks employed in this practice involve niche skills and specific knowledge. And perhaps it’s this that shrouds the practice in mystique. But that in itself is not enough to lambast the everyday use of search and social optimisation.
Nigel Muir is MD at search and social media agency, DBD Media (www.dbdmedia.co.uk)