How to Choose the Right Online Reputation Management Firm

Search engine optimization can be a mysterious industry. This in-depth guide will help you navigate your way through it.
How to Choose the Right Online Reputation Management Firm
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So you’re looking to improve your online reputation. Perhaps you discovered a negative result showing up in your Google results. Or maybe your business is suffering from a critical review.

Whatever the case may be, you decide you need the help of an online reputation management (ORM) firm. But how do you wade through all the sludge, and find a quality firm you can trust with your reputation?

Related: Universities Need to Start Teaching Online Reputation Management

As you’re vetting ORM firms, there are key questions to ask as well as red flags to look out for. In this post, I’ll guide you through them so you can go forth confidently as you do your independent research, communicate with ORM firms, read sales materials and review contracts. Here’s what you need to know.

Conduct an online search.

If you’re looking for an ORM firm, chances are you’re going to search online to see what’s out there. My suggestion? Stay away from the companies that spend a lot of money on advertising.

The term online reputation management gets searched in Google 8,100 times each month. That’s a valuable keyword to rank for so it’s no surprise that ORM firms will want to advertise there.

But advertising for popular keywords, like online reputation management, is expensive, so you can bet that the firms advertising there are prioritizing its acquisition of new customers rather than servicing the ones they have.

Instead of falling victim to those paid ads, scroll beyond them to find the organic searches below. See which firms rank independently for those terms without the need for advertising. If the firms are good at what they do, they shouldn’t have to pay for ads to rank for those key terms. It’s their core expertise after all.

Once you’ve found a few ORM firms, look them up online - both the company and the founder. Are their online presences impressive? Are there negative results showing up on the first page of Google for the CEO's name?

If the company doesn’t think its own online reputation is valuable enough to maintain then definitely don’t trust them with your own.

Communicate with ORM firms.

After you’ve done your research, you'll choose a few firms to reach out to. Here are several warning signs of a bad firm.

Beware of any guarantees about fixing search results.

Some firms out there make absurd claims - bragging that they have been around longer than Google, as if this gives them some special super power. If the firm boasts a quick fix - under six months -- guarantees it can achieve certain search results for you, or claims to have some sort of proprietary software that works against Google, you should run in the opposite direction.

Beware of black-hat SEOs.

Look out for terms, like keyword stuffing and link farming, or any other shady technique that is meant to try to trick Google.

In short, if the firm’s reps feels confident that they’re going to outsmart Google, it’s not going to happen. When’s the last time you did a Google search and saw something spammy on the first page? It rarely happens anymore because Google is extremely sophisticated today, and it continues to penalize those who try to outsmart it with black-hat SEO techniques.

The way you beat Google is by working within its guidelines. Google wants to rank valuable content high in search results, so you have to give it valuable content. The key is to build up a personal brand with high quality content and consistent activity for long enough to prove that your links should beat out everything else on your first page. This takes time. It necessitates quality work, and it requires an evolving strategy.

Beware of opaque processes.

Ask how the firm will reach your goal(s).

Does the firm outsource content? Do they rely solely on bookmarking submissions, or do they create high quality content for your target audience? The firm should be completely transparent about what they do for you each month. Attempts to mystify the process is another huge red flag.

If you sign up right away, and you don’t have any influence on how the company shapes your brand, that’s another warning sign. There should be some level of onboarding with a real person or a real team.

An ORM campaign is always in flux. Search results move up and down, and algorithms change, which may lead to unique opportunities. For that reason, it’s important to ensure you’re given a human representative - someone who will work with you each month to talk about strategy and your evolving brand.

Related: 6 Tools for Monitoring Your Online Reputation

Understand ORM sales materials.

Once you’ve chatted with a sales rep, you will inevitably get the chance to look through their sales materials. Perhaps you’re given case studies, a tailored proposal or a rough outline of what a typical campaign looks like.

In any case, be diligent in your review process.

Pay attention to whether the firm boasts quantity over quality.

If they try to impress you with the number of websites and social properties they build for clients - rather than the quality of the work they do on those web properties -- you should be skeptical. Remember: Google wants value, so you need to provide value in an ORM campaign - not links to hundreds of social media and bookmarking sites.

In fact, if you’re trying to fix your search results, I’d caution you away from signing up with a firm that promises specific numbers at all. It shows a lack of understanding about how Google works today and a lack of flexibility when unique opportunities arise.

For example, if you’re promised 200 Tweets per month, but your LinkedIn becomes extremely popular six months down the road, wouldn’t you rather spend more time there to take advantage of the opportunity? You want the time you get each month to be fluid and flexible, and most of all, you want to be working with someone who can strategize on the fly to accommodate an evolving strategy.

Be on the lookout for sales materials that lack diversity in their strategy.

Google likes to provide different types of content to users so your ORM strategy should incorporate long and short form content, websites to host that content and social media properties to share and disseminate that content with a growing audience. If the company just submits links, or hangs its hat on press releases, you won’t be getting effective, long-lasting results.

Look for case studies.

It can be difficult to come across case studies in the ORM industry because clients don’t want to be tied to an ORM firm. That’s understandable, but I believe any reputable firm should have some clients that are so thrilled with the quality of the work that they are willing to share with others. Never sign up with a firm without seeing examples of their work first.

When a firm gives you a case study, do your own due diligence, and look that customer up online to see what the quality of work looks like. And if the case study promises to fix your search results in under six months, you can be sure you’re getting the veil pulled over your eyes.

Understand contracts.

Once you have an ORM firm’s contract in front of you, carefully review the terms.

If a firm guarantees how quickly they can suppress a negative search result, do not sign up.

There are no guarantees in this industry. No ORM firm knows with 100 percent certainty what Google’s next algorithm will bring, which of your web properties will rank highly or how long it will take to suppress a negative result.

Be on special alert for companies that promise they will do work for you until the negative result(s) are suppressed.

This usually takes the form of you paying a certain amount up-front, and the firm works until your search results are fixed. No company can afford to do that long-term, so you can be sure you’ll receive a low quality, automated service. Offering an up-front payment option is fine, and so is charging more at the beginning of a campaign since there is extra time that goes into building out a brand and creating websites. But you shouldn’t feel that you must pay up-front. A firm that is confident in its work will always allow you to pay month-to-month.

Related: Why Online Reputation Management Is Like Brushing Your Teeth

Make sure that you own all of the web properties and all of the content that the ORM firm creates for you.

There should be a clause in your contract that ensures all the intellectual property is owned by you - the client. If that’s not in there, you should either insist that it be there, or run the other way.