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Think BR: Reputation matters, to Google

Following Google's recent algorithm changes to combat retailers looking for negative feedback, brands will have to be more alert than ever to bad reviews, writes Reform's Rosie Sayers.

Rosie Sayers, consultant at digital consultancy Reform

Rosie Sayers, consultant at digital consultancy Reform

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US online retailer DecorMyEyes recently claimed in the New York Times that it actively sought bad publicity through poor service so the volume of complaints would improve its search engine rankings.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to quite a furore. Google has, therefore, in its own words, "developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience."

Digital experts have been banging on for years that brands have to understand, monitor and manage online sentiment and feedback - to be ‘part of the conversation’.

This latest news simply makes it even more important - from now on it seems that the worse your reputation, the lower you’ll rank.

The internet is no longer just about brand awareness, as any search or social media guru will tell you. It’s an evaluation tool, with online forums, social networks and communities filled with customer reviews both positive and negative.

Brands that don’t manage their reputation in those locations aren’t just losing out on the opportunity to be responsive, but might now be worsening their Google standing as well.

Of course, tracking sentiment is hugely difficult as it’s such a subjective arena. But Google has the resources to make a genuine effort and so marketers need to redouble their efforts to minimise negative feedback - or at least its impact on the brand.

So, how do you manage negative feedback?

Some adverse comment is inevitable, as you can’t please everyone all the time. But one thing brands can do is to improve their service by reacting more quickly. A fast response to negative comments posted within your own community site will drive positive opinion and thus dilute the negative.

Customer forums are not always a great customer service channel themselves, but brands that listen to what’s being said and promptly respond either on- or offline are likely to generate more palatable comments next time around.

It’s like having a perfectly manicured garden - of course you’ll get the occasional weed, but a quick response allows you to deal with it before it starts strangling the begonias.

Secondly, marketers shouldn’t view this latest move by Google as an excuse to shy away from building online communities in the first place.

The argument that ‘if we have no forum, there’s nowhere for negative comments to sit and mess up our rankings’ is flawed: there are plenty of independent sites where customers can post bad reviews and relate poor experiences. But at least if you’ve built the community, you know where to look and can manage it directly.

In fact, if Google is thinking about moving towards a more sentiment-driven algorithm, as seems to be the case, brands should be begging for customer feedback.

Today firms with poor user experience records are being cut from the rankings; tomorrow only those with the best reviews might make the top of page one.

Of course, this does potentially open the door for ‘black hat’ SEO tactics like deliberately posting negative reviews of competitor brands.

It will be interesting to see how Google manages this problem: something for their designers to think about as part of their ongoing push to be ‘fair’.

The algorithm change, as it is supposedly only minor, is unlikely to change how brands approach their overall SEO strategies. What it should affect is how they deal with and dilute their bad reviews.

Managing your online reputation through responsiveness and transparency is vital, as social media experts have been saying for years. Only now the search industry will be saying it as well.

Rosie Sayers, consultant at digital consultancy Reform

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