It's a problem that has faced humanity since we first started sticking together in social groups. A hard-won reputation can be destroyed almost instantly.
Online, this is especially true, because rumours and accusations can get widespread attention incredibly quickly. One particularly notable customer with a bad experience can influence thousands of others. One ill-advised post on social media can turn your business into a laughingstock. One scandalous executive can bring the entire company into disrepute.
If you find yourself battling a new-found bad reputation, whether it's your fault or someone else's, there are many things you can do to improve your reputation, respond to negative stories and even improve your business practices.
The first thing you must do is stop doing whatever it is that has got you in this mess. Once you've done that, these six things will help you overcome a bad online reputation:
Engage on social media regularly
This is often a first stop for frustrated customers, and it's a great place to start rebuilding your reputation online. A good social media presence can help drive mistakes of the past further down the search results, because social sites tend to rank very high. So a branded search, where someone looks specifically for your company, will result in your homepage, followed by your active social media accounts. Get involved with as many of the big social players as possible, and you might be able to take over the first page of results for your brand name with pages that are completely under your control.
To do this most effectively, you'll need to hire a social media manager, or if your budget can't stretch that far, make sure whoever is running your social is properly trained. Far too many bad reputational problems start with a brand jumping on a hashtag they don't fully understand or an employee saying something hideously offensive. That's not a problem you want to have when you're already trying to improve your reputation.
Respond to negative reviews calmly and helpfully
Things go wrong all the time in every business, and often that can lead to a scathing review. It is tempting to just brush off a negative review as a grumpy customer being unreasonable. That may be true, but what is also true is that 88 per cent of online shoppers look at reviews when making purchasing decisions. And you don't want that one grumpy customer to have the last word. Still, going on the attack is rarely helpful to your online reputation.
Instead, respond to negative reviews with helpfulness, openness and a desire to solve the disgruntled customer's problem. Then, when new potential customers come along, that initial bad review won't look so bad. It will have the context of your company trying to fix a problem.
If it helps, you may also want to look at reviews like free market research. You can see exactly where in your pipeline customers are let down, and you can fix these problems, all without hiring an expensive consulting firm. In the end, your customer gets a better experience, you can improve your services and new customers can see it all unfold in front of them.
Make your search results look more authentic
Google in particular have been good about bringing rich snippets – all the bells and whistles that aren't the words you use to describe your page – to their search results. The star ratings and links to customer reviews makes your site look more legitimate, and that will improve customer trust. Google Seller Ratings adds stars to your Google Adwords ad, and online review services like Feefo and Facebook reviews add stars to your homepage's direct search result.
These little decorations don't just grab attention on a webpage stuffed with words. These snippets make it clear that real people use your products or service, and they show how happy your customers actually are. They also imply you have much experience, because you have enough reviews to show up on your listing.
So start encouraging customers to leave feedback everywhere other customers are likely to look. Link those to your website, so you can get those stars that grab new customers' attention. Then go back to the previous section. Interact with those reviews that might put new customers off.
Get a PR strategy
Being good is the best way to build a good online reputation, but there may be times that something awful happened to or involved your company. Even if it is outside of your control, it might end up in the news, which ranks incredibly well on search engines. You may find you need to push some unflattering or embarrassing stories off the first page of listings, and an experienced online PR company can help with this.
Essentially, you want to get good or at least neutral mentions of your company in articles that appear online. As newer, and presumably more relevant, stories, they will rank higher than the older ones you don't want popping up. An experienced online PR company is crucial here, because they will have the connections to the papers – and the understanding of how to find and sell a story – that will help push negative stories down the rankings.
Make it easy for happy customers to give a review
When people decide to take the time to write a review, chances are they will be angry or upset by something. Happy customers either don't notice the good service or simply forget to tell the internet how great you are. But if you make it as easy as possible for them, they will be more likely to write down their positive feelings. And – to state the obvious – the more good reviews you have, the better your online reputation will be.
Use tools to help you keep track
There is no way you can keep track of all the new reviews, Google ranking changes and social media mentions your company is likely to see, especially if you are big or growing rapidly. Luckily there are a plethora of tools you can use to help you keep up. Google Alerts tell you when whatever keyword you choose appears in a newly indexed page. Mention does something similar, but also has an influencer filter that allows you to hone in on what the biggest players in your industry are saying about you. A social media management tool like Hootsuite can help you track social media mentions, schedule posts and respond quickly to customer needs. ReviewTrackers helps monitor all the biggest review sites, so you know when you get new reviews and can respond to them quickly.
These are just suggestions, of course. Do your research and you'll find the tools that will help you fix the specific problems you're facing.
Improving a bad online reputation is not easy. You have to influence your rankings, so good stories appear higher up than bad ones. You have to urge happy customers to talk about how great you are for you. You have to engage with unhappy customers, and you have to be seen to be making things right for them. And you have to do all of this while actually fixing the issue or issues that got your business the bad reputation in the first place.
Still, there's no doubt that it's worth the work. After all, the alternative is just to look like a bad company and watch as customers turn to your competitors. But if you put in the work and really try to change, you'll see an improvement, both in your customer satisfaction and in your business performance. And that's all any good company really wants.