How to Survive a Reputation Meltdown, Part 4: Finding the right online reputation management firm for you

Who knew it would come to this? In today’s social media era, our reputation consists of what people say about us online.

When friends, colleagues, and strangers rave about us—liking our posts, sharing our content, tweeting our exploits—then our reputations soar. But when people tear us down, either because of something we’ve done or because of the malicious words of others, then our reputations can implode, wreaking havoc on our lives, both online and off.

In part 1 of this series, we showed how this damaging process played out in the case of financial advisor Glenn Neasham. In part 2, we described how to analyze the severity of an online reputation crisis, and then in part 3, we showed how to attempt a do-it-yourself (DIY) fix. In this final part of the series, we’d like to discuss how to hire an online reputation management firm when a DIY fix isn’t feasible.

In prior articles, we suggested that some reputation problems—say, having a couple negative reviews on Yelp—might not require fixing. But when bad reviews mount or when damaging content dominates your page-one search results, it’s time to assess your problem and initiate a fix. However, when you become the subject of hundreds or thousands of negative web pages, creating a downbeat so pervasive it threatens your livelihood, then it’s time hire an online reputation management (ORM) firm.

What’s an ORM company? It’s a professional services provider that specializes in monitoring and responding to reputation crises that have gone viral. It does this by using its search engine expertise (actions that promote and demote content on search engine results pages [SERP]). Unlike so-called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) companies, ORM firms don’t primarily focus on getting your content on Google’s first page. They’re equally concerned with moving negative content off the first few pages, hopefully rendering it invisible to the public.

Sound reasonable? At first blush, yes. However, in practice, ORM firms have reputation issues themselves. Problem is, the industry is less than a decade old and lacks a formal credentialing process or code of ethics. Consequently, some firms have engaged in dubious business practices that benefit their bottom lines, more than their clients’.

According to experts, the industry’s ethics problems stem from abusive sales techniques, posting of fake product/service reviews, and the use of so-called Black Hat SEO techniques to account-management practices that penalize clients who try to cancel their ORM contracts. Here are some common issues:

Spamming companies who receive negative consumer reviews on sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List. The ORM firms sift through a company’s reviews to uncover negative results, then send it e-mails suggesting its reputation is on the verge of destruction. Guess who can help?

  • Searching arrest records for mug shots, which the ORM firm publishes on web sites it controls or with whom it contracts, then contacting the defendant promising to take down the photo for $X. When the person or company pays the fee, the ORM firm moves the mug shot to another site and repeats the “offer.”
  • Hiring people from the developing world to write and post positive (though fake) reviews on consumer-review sites (AKA “astroturfing”).
  • Discouraging clients to cancel contracts through abusive “handcuffs.” For example, an ORM might arrange to own any websites created for clients. If they try to cancel the project, they’ll lose control over their own sites. Then the ORM firm can take the sites down, allowing negative content to rise again.
  • Engaging in SEO techniques that violate Google’s ethical standards.