Have you Googled your company lately? If not, you probably should. What people are saying online about your brand -- the good, the bad and the oftentimes inaccurate -- makes all the difference when it comes to winning or losing customers, says Michael Fertik, founder and chief executive of Redwood City, Calif.-based online reputation management agency Reputation.com and co-author of Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier (AMACOM, 2010).
If you're not vigilantly monitoring and constantly improving your company's online reputation, you could be sending potential customers to competitors who are. You can't control what others say about your brand online, but you can manage how your business generally comes across on the internet with a few helpful tools, tips and tricks.
Here are 10 vital questions to ask when managing your company's online reputation:
1. How can I find out what people are saying about my brand online?
Start by simply searching for your company's name -- and the names of your products and services -- on Google, Yahoo and Bing, and see what types of information come up. Search using the exact title of your business, along with common misspellings of it. You'll also want to run an image search using your company's name.
In an ideal world, your business's actual website, hopefully along with some favorable, accurate news and reviews, should dominate the majority of the first page of search engine results, says Michael Zammuto, president of Brand.com, a Philadelphia-based online reputation management firm.
2. Can I be notified when my company is mentioned online?
Thankfully, yes. All you have to do is create a Google Alert. They are free, real-time email alerts that are automatically sent to your email address when mentions about your company occur online. You can easily set up multiple keyword-based alerts to notify you when relevant new web content is published about your products, services and events and those of your competitors.
3. How does my company's online reputation stack up to my competitors'?
Fertik says it's just as crucial to monitor your competitors' online reputations as it is to stay on top of your own.
"Pay close attention to what people say your competitors are doing right that you might not be doing right," he says, "and what they are doing wrong that you are doing right." The idea is to use what you learn about your competitors online to fill any service gaps and gain a competitive edge.
4. Does my company website represent my business in the best possible way?
Your company's own website is your first line of defense when it comes to your online reputation, Zammuto says. Does it contain compelling brand messaging that clearly demonstrates what your company services or sells?
More importantly, does your company's website URL directly mirror your actual business name (www.companyname.com)? If not, Zammuto says you should immediately acquire an exact match domain name, if possible, so consumers can easily, quickly find you online.
5. How can I monitor what people are saying about my business via social media?
If you have your own company Facebook page or Twitter account, log into each platform daily to track customer questions and comments and respond to them individually in a timely manner, Zammuto advises.
There are several fee-based social media management tools that you can use if you don't have the time to monitor and respond to individual social comments and interactions about your brand. These include Salesforce.com's Radian6, Vocus's Buying Signals and HootSuite.
All three let you track and reply to social mentions based on specific keywords from a single dashboard. HootSuite offers a 30-day free trial, with paid plans starting at $8.99 per month. Vocus and Radian6 share their fees via prearranged sales calls.
6. Should I really care what people say about my company on review sites?
"Word-of-review is now more powerful than word-of-mouth," Fertik says, so it's critical to analyze and understand what people are saying about your company on review sites that are relevant to your specific line of business.
For example, if you own a hotel, you'll want to search for reviews and ratings of your establishment on sites like TripAdvisor and Hotels.com. If people are complaining on these types of sites about the cleanliness of your rooms, view it as an opportunity to swiftly respond with appropriate, corrective action and to update your brand's own website messaging to reflect your improved housekeeping standards, suggests Fertik.
7. What types of positive web content can I create to offset negative content?
Zammuto suggests that you create several different unique types of web content that highlight your products and services, including a company blog and a YouTube channel, for starters.
Building up interesting and relevant web content about your company can increase the likelihood of favorable links appearing on the first page of Google search results. The basic concept, Zammuto says, is to produce enough positive search results to minimize any negative ones beleaguering your brand. Suppress the bad, pump up the good.
8. Should I be concerned about my personal online reputation, too?
Yes, especially if you are the product itself, says Fertik. For example, if you are a doctor or an attorney, you'll want to be sure that when people search for your name online they encounter web content about you that is nothing less than favorable. This includes comments, images and videos that you post on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and on your personal blog. Your personal online persona and image should be "consistent with your profession enough to boost consumer confidence," Fertik says.
9. Should I respond to negative reviews?
Both Fertik and Zammuto advise that you don't waste time responding to excessively negative or attacking comments on review sites like Yelp.
"The more you engage negative comments on Yelp, the more you're basically encouraging Google to drive traffic to those types of controversial interactions," Zammuto says.
10. What are some reliable online reputation management tools?
For business owners on a shoestring budget, there are a handful of free, but basic tools to choose from. Addict-o-matic is one such free tool that delivers the latest online mentions about any topic or name you look up, including mentions on Wordpress blogs, YouTube videos, Flickr images, Ask.com news and more.
Organizations such as Brand.com, Reputation.com, Integrity Defenders and RemoveYourName offer paid services for businesses that can help you clean up your online presence. Among other services, they request that negative online commentary and information about your company be removed and assist you in developing positive content to take the place of unbecoming content.
Integrity Defenders offers business packages that start at $1,289 to clear unwanted information from the first page of search results for a single search phrase. The company's advanced business package costs $2,149 and extends the service from the first page to the second page of search results, also for one search phrase. Reputation.com's widely used Reputation Defender product ranges between approximately $3,000 and $15,000, depending on how customized the services are, to keep tabs on your online reputation and to get rid of negative remarks they dig up.