Content on the internet can have a significant effect on your business, for better or for worse. A series of negative reviews could give consumers the wrong impression of your brand. In fact, research from BrightLocal found that 85 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
Given that anonymous users can post any information they want about your business, even if it is inaccurate, uninformed or malicious, managing your online reputation becomes even more important. It might even be tempting to resort to some unsavory tactics known as "black hat" reputation management. These tactics can be effective, but they often come at a steep cost down the line.
"Online reputation management is necessary because anyone can say anything online anonymously, posing as an expert or as someone else," said Elad Shapira, head of research at Panorays. "However, there are ways to get this approach wrong and put your company and business at risk by using so-called black hat tactics. These are effective but unethical – and sometimes even illegal – ways to manipulate online data."
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If you're considering employing an online reputation management (ORM) service to clean up your brand's image online, you need to make sure it's not going to employ black hat tactics on your behalf. Otherwise, you could find yourself in more troubled waters than before.
What is black hat online reputation management?
Black hat online reputation management is a host of tactics that are effective but sometimes illegal. While the short-term reward could seem tantalizing, these tactics often come back to bite a brand and create bigger problems than a handful of negative reviews ever could.
According to Shapira, these are some of the most common black hat tactics:
- Black hat SEO: Search engine optimization tactics that are in violation of Google's guidelines, such as keyword stuffing and invisible text, fall under the umbrella of black hat SEO. Other methods include link manipulation, reporting competitors and spamming.
- Fake reviews: Planting fake or paid positive reviews for your own brand that elbow out negative content is known as "astroturfing." In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission actively fights against this practice. To learn more about the FTC's policy on astroturfing and product endorsements, see the agency's guidelines.
- Spam content: Content marketing can be an effective tool, but creating low-quality spam and pushing it out far and wide does not qualify. It's not only a poor online reputation management tactic, but a transparent move that consumers can easily identify.
- Duplicating websites and social accounts: Creating multiple websites and social accounts to push the same service is another common black hat tactic, often coupled with the use of manufactured backlinks to create a network of redundant pages.
- Attacking negative content: Using distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks or spambots to push back against negative content and harm its search results is a common example of attacking negative content.
These tactics, and others like them, might even produce the desired results quickly. However, it is a strategy that rests on a house of cards, and sooner or later, your brand will face the consequences.
The consequences of employing black hat tactics
In some cases, if search engines catch on to tactics like black hat SEO, your brand will be penalized, and your search engine rankings will plummet. This makes it highly unlikely that people searching for your products or services will find your company.
Some tactics are even illegal, such as purchasing fake reviews to be posted as genuine customer endorsements. Among the worst-case scenarios posed by black hat tactics are massive fines and lawsuits that could not only harm your brand's reputation, but also create considerable financial liabilities.
Vetting an online reputation management service
Given the risks of running a black hat ORM strategy, it's important to vet any third-party ORM service you choose to partner with. A good partner will only engage in "white hat" ORM tactics, which will take longer to produce the desired results but won't attract unwanted attention or legal trouble.
"A lot of shady ORM agencies indulge in various black hat ORM strategies to trick Google and … end up inviting different penalties that do more harm to your brand's reputation than good," said Ketan Kapoor, CEO and co-founder of Mettl. "Hire an agency which leverages only ethical and white hat ORM strategies which search engines like Google approves of and which wouldn't in any way attract any penalties."
When considering an ORM service, you should ask the company pointed questions to find out its exact process and the strategy it will employ on your behalf. It's also wise to seek out references from colleagues who have had positive experiences with ORM services.
These are some red flags in discussions with any potential ORM partner:
- Guaranteed positive reviews: If an ORM service promises you positive reviews or a certain number of reviews, it's a safe bet that it will generate fake content in your name.
- Guaranteed first-page rankings: Search engine algorithms are largely secret; even digital marketing professionals don't know exactly how they work. No one can guarantee first-page rankings using white hat tactics.
- Promises of overnight success: A strong search engine strategy and building positive content takes time. If an ORM service promises overnight success, it likely intends to employ black hat tactics.
- Secretive methodologies: Any ORM partner should be willing to provide you with a written breakdown of its precise process, as well as a personalized strategy based on your brand's goals and current positioning.
Due diligence in the procurement process for any product or service is essential, but especially when it comes to something as sensitive as online reputation management. Any uncertainty should be treated with suspicion, because if you put your trust in an unverified ORM service that uses black hat tactics, you could quickly find your brand's reputation in crisis or your business in court.