Choosing a Reputation Management Service: 2015 Buyer's Guide
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In business, your reputation is everything. Thanks to social media and review sites like Yelp, you can build a great online reputation fast. There's just one problem: The Internet moves fast, and with a few missteps, you can hit rock bottom just as quickly as you rose to that coveted 5-star rating.

The same can be said for job seekers and professionals. Just as potential customers may be searching for your business on major search engines like Google, employers often search for information about job candidates. If your Web presence is questionable, it could cost you your dream job or even get you fired from your current position.

Ready to choose a reputation management service? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

So what do you do when your online reputation is less than stellar? Online reputation management (ORM) services can help you stop, fix and prevent PR disasters, as well as protect and promote your brand.

"When someone wants to learn about anyone and anything, they turn to the Internet," said Patrick Ambron, CEO of reputation management company BrandYourself.com.

"Reputation management services can help both businesses and individuals build and maintain a positive online presence, so when they are looked up online, people find positive and relevant info about them," Ambron added.

These services can have a huge impact on your personal success and that of your business, an impact that goes beyond improving your search results.

"It adds value to your brand, contributes longevity and visibility to your career or organization, and helps prevent your identity from being appropriated and misused by others," said Shannon Wilkinson, CEO of ORM company Reputation Communications.

Whether you're a business or an individual, it's important to understand how reputation management services can help you, and to make sure you know what ORM companies can and can't do and what makes a service trustworthy and effective.

Editor’s Note: Looking for a reputation management service for your business? If you’re looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from vendors for free:

To break it down, these are the actions reputation management companies will take to analyze, build, protect and restore your brand's online presence, and the main features you should look for when choosing an ORM service:

Search engine optimization and management: Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making your online content rank higher in popular search engines like Google.  Reputation management firms will do this for your content so that Internet users searching for you, your business or topics that relate to your business will find you. Moreover, they will find honest, relevant information about you in the process. If there is negative information about you in your search results, your ORM provider can strategize ways to use truthful, positive content to detract from any negative content by pushing it back farther into the list of search results. This way, people who search for you or your business won't be immediately greeted by negative results.

Content development and management: This goes hand in hand with SEO, because in order to rank well in search engines and to build up a good reputation, you need to have good-quality content. This means making your website and blog organized, unique and well written. It also means creating quality press releases to spread the word about your business the right way. Most reputation management services will help you improve your existing content and create new material so that Internet users will not only find positive results about you or your business right away, they'll also see that the content you share is real, relevant and worth reading. This adds even more credibility to your brand and your reputation.

Social media management: You're likely already on several social media networks, be it for personal use or for your business. While platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can all help you grow your business or personal brand, it only takes one inappropriate picture or comment to cause a PR nightmare. Most ORM services can help you clean up your social networks to make sure they're appropriate, and ORM services can monitor how your social media profiles affect your reputation, too.

Third-party website monitoring: Even if your website and social media presence are up to speed, outsiders can still easily damage your reputation. This includes former employees and displeased customers. Not only are there a wealth of review websites, like Yelp and Glassdoor, where anyone can sign up and post a review of your business, it is also incredibly easy to create a new website or blog, where people can write whatever they please. For example, if you were to fire an employee, or one of your employees were to leave on bad terms, there's nothing stopping them from writing malicious blog posts or putting false information in reviews about you all over the Web. Reputation management services will monitor the Internet for this kind of content to see what people are saying about you.

All of these steps contribute to a successful reputation management campaign; however, choosing the right ORM provider isn't always easy. 

Overall, online reputation management services can help individuals and businesses accomplish several goals. Eric Schiffer, chairman of ORM company Reputation Management Consultants, said there are three main things one can do with a reputation management service:

New and young businesses can use it to gain exposure.

Businesses that don't have the time or the resources to build their brands online can turn to ORMs to create detailed and proactive brand strategies, Schiffer said.

It protects business and individuals against attacks.

Schiffer noted that it just takes the words of one customer to make or break your online reputation. ORM services can help you strategize to protect against any potential negative situations.

"One scathing review, consumer complaint or [adverse] blog article can cause irreparable damage to an individual or business's bottom line within months, or even weeks," Schiffer said. "Reputation management firms can assist with establishing a zone of authentic, positive media that can help protect and mitigate damage done by negative customer feedback."

It can restore your reputation in the event that your online presence has already been damaged.

While, ideally, you would use a reputation management company to prevent negative situations, ORM services can also help restore your good name when things go wrong. The right firm can use positive content to overhaul your reputation and drive down negative information, Schiffer said.

Are you already dealing with a crisis?

If you're already in the midst of a crisis and you're trying to do damage control for your business or personal brand, your process for choosing a reputation management company may differ from the process of choosing an ORM service to build and/or protect your brand. In this type of situation, you'll need to focus on the problem at hand while still finding a provider that is trustworthy and will come up with a tailored strategy that meets your needs.

"The reality is, if you look at a reputation or crisis management plan, you need to have it customized to meet your needs and you need to understand the depth of your problems," said Ken Wisnefski, founder and CEO of ORM provider WebiMax.

"A lot of times, people think something's a big deal when it's really not that difficult to fix, while some clients may spend thousands of dollars to fix something," he added.

To ensure that you get the best reputation management service while still acting fast, Wisnefski advised customers to have their potential providers provide them with some sort of analysis related to their current online sentiment. Then, he said, "really dig into how they plan on addressing that problem — if they've got a scripted approach, it's probably not going to be what you need."

Wisnefski also noted that it's sometimes easier to handle a crisis situation if you've already been working with a reputation management service, since it means you can monitor your online reputation and act fast when the situation arises.

While the majority of ORM providers offer the same basic services, every company is different. It's important that you choose the best one for you and your business.

And handling a reputation management issue quickly and tactfully may be more important than you realize.

"People sometimes say they're not really concerned with what's being said about them online, that it's not something that really impacts them, but we find the reality is often that your online sentiment can really be costing you a lot of business," Wisnefski said.

Figure out your needs and goals

Before you contact any ORM companies, consider your goals in using such a service: Are you looking to monitor and improve your presence on online review websites? Do you want to clean up your social networks? What about search results? It goes without saying that your goals will vary based on whether you're using a reputation management service as an individual or a business, as well as on what kind of business you run.

"If you are a recent college graduate, you will be best served by a company experienced in removing inappropriate or outdated photographs and information on social media platforms," Wilkinson said. "Doctors, dentists and attorneys, as well as storefront businesses like restaurants, find online reviews to be their biggest challenge. They might obtain best results using a review management firm."

And "if you are a high-profile industry leader, VIP or have a rising presence in business, you face different issues and will want a firm that specializes in that sector," Wilkinson added.

Think about customer service

It's also important to be sure that the ORM company you choose is there for you.

"While the process of building and maintaining a positive online presence is time-consuming, for the most part, it is not a complicated one," Ambron said. "Don't let a reputation company confuse you or mystify the process."

Not only should your provider be clear and open about your reputation management campaigns at all times, but the company should also make you feel like it cares about your specific needs and concerns as a client. Your ORM provider should never make you feel like you're just another number.

"Every single reputation management campaign is unique and requires a customized approach to your brand strategy. So if you get the feeling that you're receiving canned responses or standardized strategies, you may not be getting the type of comprehensive and personalized platform that you need for your campaign to be effective," Schiffer said.

You should be comfortable knowing that your reputation management campaign is in good hands.

"You should feel as though your campaign receives the necessary attention to detail that your particular objectives require," Schiffer said.

Do your research

Once you've established your goals and considered customer service, it's time to look for ORM companies that cater to your needs. But don't just check to see that they avoid black hat practices  and cover what you're looking for; also make sure the company has a good reputation. After all, a reputation management company that can't protect its own reputation probably won't be of much help to you. (See the last section of this story for more on black hat practices and how to avoid them.)

So how can you tell if a company is reputable?

"A credible vendor will have photographs and biographies of their founder and/or top executives on their websites, not just a phone number to call," Wilkinson said.

"Often they are recognized experts, featured in mainstream media platforms. Or they are active in their communities, chairing Internet-related organizations or helping educate the public about digital issues," she added.

Wilkinson also noted that you can find out a lot about a reputation management service by reading the content it shares on its website.

"You can gain a lot of insight into a provider's process and point of view by reading their blogs and articles. That can help you evaluate the best service for your needs," she said.

And don't be afraid to meet with representatives from the ORM companies or talk to other clients who use the companies you're considering.

"Look at their track record. Talk to their clients. Meet with the team," Schiffer said. He also suggested asking yourself these questions about a potential ORM company:

  • Does it have unique technological methodologies that can prove a track record of success with the toughest cases?
  • Does it have empathy?
  • Does it have integrity?
  • Are individuals at the ORM experts at strategic media relations?

It's also important that the company you choose have experience with many different types of cases, so that you know you're in good hands if something goes wrong.

"Look for someone with broad credentials," said Alexis Moore, author of "Cyber Self-Defense" (Lyons Press, October 2014). Having "diverse backgrounds in cybercrime, risk management, consulting and investigative [fields] is best."

A good reputation management service will tell you if it uses white hat or black hat tactics, Reputation Communications' Wilkinson said. You'll want to go with a provider that uses white hat tactics, as these are the acceptable techniques that adhere to Google's best practices. White hat tactics, like those listed above, are completely transparent and rely on having quality content and using proper SEO techniques. Other white hat practices include taking the time to respond proactively to any negative situations and getting reputable websites to write about or feature you or your business. A reputation management campaign that uses white hat tactics will take a lot of time, but will play it safe and provide you with long-term results.

Black hat techniques, on the other hand, may work quickly, but they are aggressive and risky. Search engines may even ban you if they catch on to your black hat tactics.  If an ORM service you're considering uses any of the following techniques, take that company out of the running and go with one that doesn't use these methods.

'Astroturfing': In this practice, a company will create fake accounts on review websites and use them to write positive reviews, or it will pay users to do so in order to boost ratings and detract from other negative reviews. 

Creating fake websites or content: This tactic is exactly what it sounds like; it involves launching fake websites and blogs to create more search results to cover up any negative results people may find when searching for you or your business.

Keyword stuffing: With this tactic, you pack as many keywords as possible into your website's metadata to increase your rankings in search.

Link spamming: This is another tactic that involves creating as many links as possible to positive content so that search engines rank that positive content highly.

Invisible text: Similar to keyword stuffing, this practice involves placing extra keywords on your website. In this case, they're written on the page itself, but are hidden by making the text the same color as the page's background.

Using spam bots: Some reputation management companies will use spam bots, denial-of-service attacks and hacking methods to target negative content and make it difficult or impossible for other users to access.

Quality, honesty and transparency are the keys to a good online reputation. Reputation management campaigns often use questionable black hat practices, but they fall into an ethical gray area and can ultimately do more harm to your brand than good. Make sure that the ORM service you choose avoids these tactics and is clear about what it can and cannot do for you.

"A trustworthy ORM provider will be able to explain in clear language how their ORM process works and what a client can expect to see in three weeks, three months and more after a campaign is undertaken," Wilkinson said.

"They will also tell you if they can help you attain your goals, and decline an assignment if they can't."

Editor’s Note: Looking for a reputation management service for your business? If you’re looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from vendors for free: