"Every business is susceptible to public opinion," says Jeremy Lessaris, the founder of irevu, an online reputation management SaaS provider and full-service agency.
He adds, "there are over a hundred specialized review sites and dozens of social channels that can literally make or break a business. Consumers have more power today than ever before and studies have shown that consumers are more apt to write a negative review than a positive one. But it's not just what people are saying about you, it's also the frequency of public interaction that is now a large part of search rank. And the overall rank, the total number of reviews and average rating can make a business an obvious choice, driving measurable impacts on traffic online and in-store."
In a nutshell, online reputation management (ORM) is vital.
How can you know who to entrust with your company's online reputation? What are the red flags that can tip you off to a less-than-stellar ORM provider? And how can you weed through the bad apples to find the right company for you? We asked experts in the online reputation management community for the do's and don'ts of shopping around for an ORM provider. Here's what they said:
DO look for realistic expectations
Realistic expectations for a service provider are always important. It can take quite a while to impact your Google rankings. It's not magic. For any company looking to improve or manage an online reputation, a provider shouldn't make it feel easier than it is. Realistic expectations are key.
Expectations are often tied to guarantees. While money-back guarantees are okay in some circumstances, you should avoid other sorts of guarantees. Lessaris advises, "There really shouldn't be any guarantees of changes in reputation, rank, average rating or volume of reviews/mentions."
Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a full-service digital marketing agency, says, "Guarantees are premature." Instead, he recommends people should keep an eye on both short-term and long-term goals.
DO shop around
Pierre Zarokian, CEO of ReputationStars.com suggests that companies reach out to multiple ORM companies to find the best fit. He suggests that you research companies online and "call around to a few companies to get different options and prices. Find out if the company can get specific content removed rather than suppressed.
As far ORM work is concerned, there is no difference the type of company it is for. However, cost may depend on what it is you want suppressed. For example, an article in a top tier publication such as the LA Times or WSJ, may be much harder to suppress than a negative content on a personal Wordpress Blog. Hence, you need more effort to get successful results. Some ORM companies may offer guarantees or performance-based plans, which may be better, so always ask what types of guarantees they provide."
DO read provider reviews
Whilst shopping around and comparing services and providers, James Robinson from Iconic Genius says, "The best thing to do is to look at their reviews."
It is a little bit meta, but, as Nolen Walker puts it, "Any ORM provider should have a good reputation of their own. An absence of reviews is an immediate red flag considering the service they are claiming to provide."
DO ask for case studies and references
It may be hard to locate branded case studies or client testimonials to know what type of results to expect. Many providers may not publicly post these types of references due to confidentiality.
Jim Angleton from AEGIS FinServ Corp explains, some clients may demand privacy or be embarrassed, while "Others do not want the public to know they have been accused, sued, claims filed against them..." Think about it. You don't want to advertise that you used to have a bad reputation and you worked on it.
In lieu of publicly posted proof, you should still ask for some type of proof.
"Letters of recommendation are the best ways to ensure you are dealing with a good operator," says Angleton.
Ask to see if they have any case studies available to show timelines and outcomes for your particular situation or industry. These are often available, with company or brand names disassociated.
"Ask to speak to current clients. Try to find previous clients and speak to them as well," says Robinson. While a provider won't put you through to a company that they have a bad relationship with, you can still get a lot out of a phone call with a satisfied client.
DO ask questions
To see if an ORM is a good fit, you need to ask questions. "You should ask what the day to day looks like, the short- and long-term goals. Ask how often you would have access to a person." says Tash.
Walker warns, "Businesses should also be wary of long-term contracts or suspect guarantees." So, be sure to ask about contract lengths, terms, and conditions. Carefully read your contract before signing anything. Get all the important information in writing, read it all through, including compensation and cancellation policies. Ask tough questions:
- Will you own all of the content they make for you after your contract?
- Will you have a dedicated account manager?
- What kind of contract or payment plan is used?
- What is the cancellation policy?
DON'T accept low-quality content
Quality is important when it comes to content marketing, link building, and your online rep. "There may be agencies who would post the same content or a lower quality of content to sites that are not very reputable," warns Jitesh Keswani, CEO, E-Intelligence. "The content becomes spam due to such activities. While you might be paying big money for quality content, it might not be the case at all."
DON'T believe outlandish ranking claims
"Claiming they can get you the first page rankings in the search results is also a major red flag," says Keswani. While we all want to think that first-page SERPs are in our future, he adds, "It is crucial that you understand that it takes a significant amount of time and the use of keywords that are highly competitive to get close to first page ranks."
DON'T pay for everything up front
How you pay and what you pay for are important. Zarokian warns companies to be careful. "Do not pay all money up front, especially to offshore companies that request a wire transfer. I have heard of horror stories where a client did this and got no work done and was not able to get money back. If the company accepts credit cards, this is the best protection you can have. If service is not provided per the agreement and you do not get a refund, you can do a chargeback with your credit card provider."
Along the same lines, Walker cautions, "Any business should be wary of guarantees because they indicate the possibility of a scam. With that being said, there are ways to hold the agency accountable based on payment structure."
DON'T pay for guaranteed reviews
While reviews are a vital part of ORM, "Anyone that promises you hundreds of reviews overnight is not who you want," says Ryan Vet, Marketing Executive and Consultant, " Slow and steady wins the race here."
What's so bad about guaranteed reviews?
Keswani explains, "...guaranteed reviews might mean that they are not authentic, which could do more harm than good. Agencies that guarantee more reviews might be following such techniques."
DON'T endorse unethical practices
"Make sure they are compliant with Google," advises Vet. When it comes to hats, you want to stay in Google's good graces. If you resort to black hat ORM strategies like fake reviews, spam or duplicate content to boost your rep, there are risks.
"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," says Ketan Kapoor, CEO and co-founder of Mettl in Business News Daily. "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."
DON'T expect content guarantees
A common misconception about ORM is the offer of a "100 percent guarantee," says Angleton. "We all strive for 100 percent excellence; however, we have noticed that is not the case and there is always one small bit posted that is or can be true about the adverse party."
Why can't we trust an ORM to get rid of any and all negative mentions?
"With respect to negative posts," says attorney Charles Lee Mudd, Jr., "there exist some sites that may not remove content. Others employ arbitration processes."
Keswani explains, "It is impossible for anyone to get access and remove information without the permission of the owner of websites." Consequently, when a provider offers a 100 percent content guarantee to potential customers, this should be taken with a grain of salt.
Do you really need ORM?
Yaniv Masjedi, CMO at Nextiva says, "You don't need ORM, if you don't care about your company's reputation." He adds, "... in today's omnichannel market, you should understand that your prospects and customers are constantly exposed to information about your company. You can take action, and ensure that what they are exposed to is positive, or leave your company's reputation to the mercy of others."
If you want to take control of the way the world sees your company, these do's and don'ts should help to find and vet an ORM provider that will help you put your best foot forward.