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You deserve to be fairly represented online, and this guide will give you the knowledge and tools you need to assess, improve, and protect your online reputation.
Why online reputation matters
Your online reputation is what people find when they look for you online.
That matters, because the Internet is the first place we turn to learn about anything—from job prospects and breaking news to shopping, travel ideas, and the people in our lives.
Not only that, but we use the Internet virtually all the time.
You and I and almost everyone else you will ever meet spends an average of 6+ hours per day online (GlobalWebIndex). That’s one quarter of each and every day. During that time, our ideas and opinions and being influenced by what we find on the Internet.
It’s no wonder that your online presence has a huge impact on every aspect of your life.
From personal relationships to professional opportunities, online reputation can be the difference between fantastic success or embarrassing failure.
That’s where online reputation management comes in. In a nutshell, online reputation management means taking control of the Web content connected to your name, and making sure the right story gets found.
Some online reputation management strategies you can do by yourself, some require a team effort—but no matter your situation, there are steps you can take right now that will make a difference.
To manage your online reputation, you need to have control over the information that pops up when people search for you online. To do that, you need to do two things: create the right presence, and help people find it.
We’ll get into the specifics below, but here is a quick summary.
1. Create the right presence
Your online reputation can only consist of what’s out there.
For most people, that means whatever is in your search results (desktop and mobile), in addition to your social media presence. For professionals and small business owners, online reputation also includes third-party sites that might get accessed directly, like Angie’s List.
Therefore, the first step in online reputation management is creating the right presence on sites that you control. These can include:
- Personal or business websites
- Social media profiles like Facebook and LinkedIn
- Blogs and forums
- Rich media sites like Flickr, YouTube, and SlideShare
- For professionals or business owners, industry-specific listings on third-party sites
- Press coverage (if applicable)
2. Make sure it gets found
When you search for something online, how many results do you look at? Usually not that many. For any given search, less than 10% of people go past the first page, and less than 1% go past page two.
For that reason, reputation management is not purely about publishing blogs and photos and the like. You also need to encourage search engines to boost important content to the top of the results, where most people will find it.
There are many factors that influence the ranking of search results—too many to cover here. In fact, entire websites are dedicated to just that topic.
For our purposes, however, some of the most important ranking indicators include:
- Relevance to the topic (in this case, you or your business)
- The authoritativeness of the site
- Backlinks from other websites
- The number of people who click on a link in the search results
- How often content on your website is updated
- What people do once they get to the site (e.g. stay on it, click the back button, etc.)
Before you can create a strategy for improving your online reputation, you need to get the “lay of the land.” Follow the steps below to discover how other people see you online and how competitive your search results are.
1. Conduct anonymized searches
The first step in assessing your online reputation is to search for your name. However, you have to do this the right way.
If you simply open your browser and start typing, you’ll probably see results that are different from what other people see. That’s because your search results are influenced by past searches and other factors related to your browsing history.
You can never predict exactly what someone else will see, but you can start from a blank slate, which will give you a sense of what people who don’t know you very well are likely to find. Here’s how to do that:
- Open a browser you don’t usually use. For example, if you normally use Chrome, try Firefox or Safari or Internet Explorer.
- Check that you’re signed out. Visit google.com and look at the top right of the browser window. You will either see a “sign in” button or a circular image or icon. You want the “sign in” button. If you don’t see it, click on the circular image and select “sign out”.
- Clear your browser cache. Signing out helps to reduce the impact of personalized information, but tracking cookies and other data stored in your browser can still influence your search results. To get rid of those, you need to clear your browser cache. Instructions vary depending on your browser, but there’s an up-to-date list of instructions for all major browsers atRefreshYourCache.com. Follow those instructions before continuing to the next step.
- Search for your name on Google. You’ll want to start with the most commonly used version of your name. For instance, if your name is Jonathan but you go by Johnnie, then search for Johnnie. Take a look at all of the links on the first two pages, but avoid clicking on them. Be especially careful not to click on any links that look potentially negative or spammy.
- Tally the results. Write down how many sites you control, how many are quality sources of information, and what you think the sentiment of each site is. For example:
- Facebook profile: full control, quality information, reflects positively on me
- White pages listing: limited control, limited useful information, neutral sentiment
- Critical news article: no control, misleading information, reflects negatively on me
2. Look at alternative sites and keywords
That initial search will give you a pretty good idea of what’s connected to your name. Still, some people might search for you in different ways.
You should also conduct a few secondary searches, tallying up the results for each as you did above.
- Bing and Yahoo Search. You’ll have to decide whether these search engines are important to you. Statistically, they get less than one third as many searches as Google. That said, maybe the people searching for you use Bing more than Google, so it’s worth at least taking a look to see if there’s anything new or significantly different there.
- Name variations. Search for different versions of your name, including misspellings. Also search for your name along with your profession or some other pertinent detail about your life that other people are likely to know or care about; e.g. “John Doe downhill skiing.”
- Find related keywords. In the searches you’ve done so far, are there words or ideas that come up regularly? For instance, let’s say you gave a presentation at a conference or trade show, and references to that event show up frequently in your results. This is a sign that people associate your name with that event. Search for “your name + event” to see what other materials appear.
- Look at other types of sites. If you run a business, you should check out professional forums, review sites, and other non-search resources that people might access directly. For example, a restaurant owner would do well to check OpenTable for reviews, and a dentist might log into a forum like Dentaltown.
3. Measure search volume
By this point, you have compiled two lists:
- Terms that people use to find information about you
- The most common results that people find, as well as how positive or negative they are
You now need to find out how many people are searching for you. This gives you a sense of how difficult it will be to influence your search results.
To estimate search volume, use a keyword research tool. There are many of them out there, mostly designed for online advertising. Among the easiest to use is Google’s free tool, part of its Adwords program. Of course, we’re not planning on running any ads, but we can still use the tool for our purposes. Here’s how:
- Sign up at adwords.google.com. Google will ask you to fill out some information that is not particularly applicable to your situation, since Adwords is designed for online advertising. Simply select the defaults and click next. There’s no need to enter a credit card number or other payment information.
- Go to Keyword Planner. This is under the “Tools” menu. Google will give you a few options to choose from. Select “Get search volume data and trends.”
- Enter your search terms. Input all of the name variations you uncovered above, one per line, then click “Get search volume.” Google will churn out a spreadsheet of results. The column that matters the most is “average monthly searches.” The numbers shown here give you an idea of how much interest there is in your name. Record these numbers.
- Assess the search competitiveness. Unfortunately, the column called “Competition” is not particularly useful for our purposes, because it measures how many people are bidding for ads on the search term. Unless you are a celebrity or your name is a brand, there’s probably nobody advertising on your name. The better measure of competitiveness for online reputation purposes is average monthly searches, which we recorded in the last step. Here’s how to interpret your results:
- Under 50. Either there is too little data for Google to measure, or you have a relatively non-competitive name. It should be easy to introduce changes.
- 50-200 searches. This is a moderately competitive search term that attracts regular attention but should be receptive to interventions.
- Over 200 searches. For anyone other than a public figure, this is a high search volume that will be difficult to influence.
The search volume numbers you’re likely to see as an individual are very low compared to search volumes for more generic terms, companies, or products. That works in your favor when it comes to influencing online reputation, but it also means you need to follow strategies specific to reputation management, not just generic SEO advice.
4. Understand the situation
You now have enough information to analyze the state of your online reputation. The next step is to take that information and use it to answer the following “big picture” questions:
- How many of the top sites in my search results do I control?
- What types of sites appear in my results?
- Are a lot of people looking for me online?
- Do most people find me through search engines or other third-party sites?
- Is the general tone of my online reputation positive or negative?
- What areas am I strongest and weakest in?
There is no one formula to determine the “right” balance of control, content, and sentiment. Your online reputation needs will, to a certain extent, be determined by the specifics of your professional and personal life.
However, there are some general categories of online reputation that most people fall into, each with certain advantages and vulnerabilities. Which is closest to your situation?
Sparse online presence. Most or all of the sites in your search results are automatically generated listings (like whitepages entries), you do not control many of these sites, and you have a low search volume for your name.
Your online reputation is relatively low key, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, there is little misleading information about you to distract searchers. On the other hand, your search results are not very authoritative or “sticky.” If someone posts something about you that is incorrect or unflattering, it is likely to shoot straight to the top. That means you are vulnerable to reputation damage.
Professional presence. Most of your results are about your business or professional life, you control some of the results, and you have low to medium search volume.
This type of online reputation presents you favorably and makes it easy for people to see your accomplishments. Check the diversity of your results: are most of the links from similar types of sites, or are they from a range of sources? For example, a doctor’s search results would ideally include his/her website, a few different review sites, some professional listings, patient education videos, and perhaps a state licensing entry. Search engines like to see a diverse range of content, so if all of your sites are similar, an unflattering or misleading link may be able to break through simply because it’s different.
Mixed messages. One or more prominent results are critical or misleading, you control some sites in your results, and you have low to medium search volume.
This type of online reputation often arises when someone has the same name as you. If that person has been arrested, has been portrayed negatively in the news, or otherwise appears unsavory, his/her reputation can rub off on you. Alternatively, you might have this type of profile because some aspect of your life is misunderstood or no longer applies—for example, a past career or a youthful indiscretion. These types of results can taint your online reputation long after they’ve stopped being relevant to your everyday life.
Under attack. You have significant critical search results, very little control over the top sites, and a medium to high search volume.
An online reputation of this sort is usually triggered by a media storm, controversy, or a coordinated cyber attack. It takes concerted, strategic intervention to turn the tide and bring more balance to the conversation.
Now that you have a sense for the state of your online reputation, you need to develop a plan to improve what’s out there. While planning, it’s important to balance several factors:
- What you want to achieve
- What will have the greatest impact
- What comes easiest to you
- How much you can realistically do
If you ignore any of these principles, your strategy is unlikely to be successful. Follow the steps below to build a workable, effective plan.
1. Determine your first target
From the research you completed above, you should have a sense of which search terms people use to find you most often. You should also have a sense of which search terms bring up the strongest or weakest reputation.
Balance these two factors to pick your first reputation management target. For example, let’s say you’re a doctor named John Doe, with the following results:
|Search term||Search volume||Search results characterization|
|John Doe MD||50||Prominent misleading results|
|John Q. Doe||5||Positive results|
|John Doe Doctor||200||Mostly positive, one negative|
You can see that most people search for “John Doe Doctor” and that there are some problems with those search results. However, the overall picture is fairly strong, and because of the high search volume, those results will be harder to change.
Fewer people search for “John Doe MD”, but the results are quite negative. Almost nobody searches for “John Q. Doe”.
In this scenario, it probably makes the most sense to focus on “John Doe MD” first. The lower search volume means you’ll have a better chance of influencing the results, and any improvements will make a substantial difference to your online reputation, since the results are not very good to begin with.
2. Set a preliminary reputation goal
Let’s say our “John Doe MD” search brings up four negative items on the first page, with two in the top five and two in the bottom five. A realistic reputation goal might be to introduce one new positive site onto the first page within two months, with a bonus goal of displacing one of the lower ranking negative results.
Why not try to knock out the top threats? Well, you’ll get there eventually, but online reputation progress is incremental.
You need to build up a base of success before you can tackle entrenched threats. By taking care of easier links first, you’ll increase the number of people who are clicking on positive materials, simply because more people are seeing those positive materials.
In turn, this sends a signal to search engines that your positive materials are more relevant than the negative ones. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, but it starts by building up momentum with “small wins.”
Start with simple, easier goals, and then build upon those successes to tackle bigger problems.
3. Choose appropriate tactics
Your approach needs to be specific to your situation and your goals. If you’re creating a reputation for an empty online presence, then you can do any number of small things and see a big impact. If you’ve got serious threats, however, you’ll need to invest a lot more time and resources, and you’ll have to focus on specific approaches.
That said, when you’re starting it’s vital that you choose activities that you have an affinity for, that you can realistically keep up long term. If you’re not big on writing, then maintaining a blog probably isn’t the right solution for you, at least at first. You might be better off focusing on Twitter, or making YouTube videos, or opening a Pinterest account. Whatever you do, it needs to be something you will actually be able to stick to.
Below are the main categories of content to consider. Some are applicable across the board, some will only apply to certain people. For now, choose two or three that are a good fit for your interests and abilities. These will form the basis of your first online reputation campaign.
Websites. If you don’t have YourName.com, you should get it. If it’s not available, get something close, like YourNameYourProfession.com. If you run a business, you probably have a website for it already, but make sure you have an “about us” page on the site that mentions you by name.
Social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ are the biggest social media networks and you should have a rich, robust profile on each. If you have an affinity for social media, you can incorporate regular social media publication into your reputation management plan by publicly posting topical materials.
Photos and videos. YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Instagram, and Pinterest are some of the biggest photo and video sites online. If your interests are more visual in nature, you can use any or all of these sites to build a diverse online profile. Search engines like different types of content, so if you can give them some images and videos instead of just text, it will help your online reputation.
Forums and professional sites. If you are a doctor or a lawyer or someone else with specialized expertise, chances are there is a public forum where you can contribute your knowledge. Answer questions on topics that interest you and that you know something about. If publication is more restricted, get in touch with the editor and offer to write a guest post.
Document sharing sites. Slideshare and Prezi are two sites that allow you to upload interesting presentations for public consumption. If you have materials that you’ve already developed for professional purposes, uploading your documents to one of these sites can be an easy way to associate positive, relevant content to your name.
Business listings. There are hundreds of sites that simply provide directory services for certain industries or regions. Examples include EZ Local, American Towns, and many others. Some of these sites are high quality, some of them less so. Many are free but require some fairly complicated hoop-jumping in order to sign up. That said, if you can get onto a couple dozen of these sites, they can be a useful way to point search engines toward quality information about your business.
Press releases. Search engines tend not to place long-lasting ranking power on press releases, for the simple reason that most PR is time sensitive and doesn’t age well. However, press releases can be useful if you do have newsworthy accomplishments to share and are willing to approach news outlets. If you haven’t done this before, smaller, local publications are more likely to give you a shot than mainstream news. Just make sure you’re sharing something of genuine public interest that will make for a good story.
4. Creating great content for reputation management
Okay, so you’ve decided what kind of materials you’re going to post online, now you need to actually make them! This is the hard part, there’s no way around it. That said, it’s much easier if you follow a few key principles.
Keyword placement. In most cases, you’ll be using some version of your name as the keyword (e.g. “John Doe MD” is the keyword from our example above).You need to use your keyword in your posts, though not to excess. Keyword stuffing is the act of forcing in a word or phrase over and over in unnatural ways, and it will get you penalized. Google and other search engines look at words within context, using advanced semantic algorithms to predict whether or not a keyword is overused.
Here are some tips on effective keyword placement in a text pieces:
- Use your main keyword near the top
- Pepper your keyword a few more times throughout, in natural ways
- Place your keyword in the title and subheaders, when appropriate
- If there are variations (e.g. “Dr. Doe,” “Dr. John Doe”), use these as well
For image, video, and other rich media sites:
- Use your main keyword in your username and profile URL
- Fill out all of the optional descriptions and identifiers for the profile, using your keyword as appropriate (don’t force it)
- Include your keyword in file names and alt tags (for images)
Content length. Search engines prefer long, authoritative content that engages people for more than a few seconds. If people visit your content then immediately click the back button on their browsers, that sends a negative signal to search engines. Essentially, it tells them that the content is either not relevant or not of good quality.
Alternatively, one of the best ways to send the right signals is to create relatively lengthy content of good quality. If it’s a blog article, write something meaty on a topic you know a lot about, ideally going over 2000 words. If it’s a video or a series of images, include enough material that it takes a while to browse or view.
Topicality. People will not spend much time with your content if it’s unconnected to what they were looking for. Since they’re looking for you, that means whatever you post needs to be interesting to people who want to learn about you. Biographies, areas of expertise, and professional materials are some of the most important online reputation areas to explore.
Include metadata. Most online publication platforms give you a wide range of tools for describing what you’re posting. If there’s an author tag, put your name there. If there’s a description, include something relevant to the materials and your keywords. When you post photos, include the keywords (if appropriate) in the photo’s alt tag.
Avoid duplicate content. Don’t post the same thing to multiple sites. If you’re posting biographies, for example, you’ll want to vary them enough that they have no sentences that are exactly the same. Ideally, each would also focus on a different aspect of your life.
Include links. Most Web content links to other sources, and you want to mirror this behavior in the content you create. Here are a few tips:
- Social profiles: These usually include fields where you can input a website or some other related online presence.
- In-text citations: If you’ve written on a professional topic, chances are there are other sites out there that have as well. Link to a few of these from within your text, at natural points. Don’t overdo it, but a couple of links in an article helps legitimize your post.
- Focus on existing content: If you have pre-existing positive sites that you’d like to promote, link to them from your new sites. This will give them a small upward push, and it helps to demonstrate that the sites are interrelated.
- Ask for backlinks: If you’ve got ties to associations or groups who might be interested in your materials, ask people to link to it from their sites. This gives you a big legitimization boost from search engines.
5. Set a schedule and milestones
Planning and organization are key to making sure you get content published and that you do it on time. Your schedule should center around two factors: how much you can realistically produce on a consistent basis, and what you hope to achieve with it.
91% of people have done something to manage their online reputations
Use milestones to build your schedule. It’s useful to work backwards: figure out what you want to see, then calculate how much work you have to do to get there. Next, see if that’s a reasonable amount of work to get done, and revise your milestones if it isn’t.
Some suggestions for good initial milestones include:
- Get at least 50 visitors per day to your personal blog
- Embed one of your photos or videos in the first page of search results
- Displace one search item with something you created
- Push your Twitter feed onto the first page of search results
The amount of work required to meet each of those milestones will vary depending on the competitiveness of your search profile, and you won’t really know what the baseline is until you start publishing. So in this first phase of reputation management, you’ll be aiming to do regular work and then measuring the results.
Create a content calendar to keep you on track. In its simplest form, a content calendar is a grid with time on the vertical axis and content categories along the top. For our purposes, one-week intervals are probably best for your calendar. Use the grid to plan when you will create and publish different types of materials from week to week.
The value of the calendar approach is that you can see at a glance how much effort you need to put into each category of material. For example, if you’re focusing on publishing YouTube videos but also want to publish a blog from time to time, the content calendar will remind you to plan your blog articles and schedule them in regularly.
Take screenshots. Before you start publishing, take baseline screenshots of your search results. Do this for all of the key terms you are concerned with, not just the initial target. That way you can measure your progress. Continue taking screenshots regularly to build an ongoing record.
You will want to keep track of a few types of information as you conduct your reputation management campaign:
- Search volumes over time (use the keyword tool above to see if this changes)
- Position of key items in the search results
- Publication dates for your materials
- The date you hit each milestone
On a monthly basis, review the results to see how you’re doing. Then make adjustments if needed. For example, if your videos are showing up very well but your blog posts aren’t, you might want to focus more heavily on writing.
You should also realize that reputation management is not linear work. As you publish materials, you will see some quick initial progress, followed by a period of stagnation or regression, and then followed by slow, steady improvement. This is normal. Search engines value long-term trends, so they are constantly testing different combinations of search results.
That said, by the six-month mark, you should see significant improvement in your online reputation. If you haven’t budged the needle by that point, it’s time to rethink your reputation management strategy and try something different.
What if your progress stalls? Sometimes the right perspective can help you interpret the data more productively. Here are a few common engagement hang-ups and how to deal with them:
Quick initial gains disappear and don’t return. Most likely, the content you’re publishing is not considered to be of a high enough quality. Spend some time revising and refining what you’ve posted. If appropriate, increase the length. Try using synonyms for some of your keywords. Add new rich media if possible, like photos and videos.
New unwanted materials showing up. Your online reputation is under active attack. You will need to increase the volume of your publication efforts.
Only one or two new items appearing. Your search profile likely lacks diversity. Tweak your strategy to emphasize different kinds of content. You may also benefit from building more links to your materials. See if there’s anyone you can ask to link to your sites.
By this point, you should have a fairly firm sense of what it takes to analyze your online reputation and create an effective reputation management plan. As long as you keep working at it and reassessing constantly, you should see improvement.
In closing, here are a few guiding principles that underpin the vast majority of all online reputation management activities. Keep these in mind as you execute your strategy.
Authority and longevity. Sites of a higher quality tend to rank more strongly in the search results. So do sites that have been around longer—and that publish regularly. That’s why it’s important to start early and publish often.
1 oz prevention = 1 lb cure. A blockade of good, strong content firmly under your control creates a buffer against unwelcome surprises. It makes it that much harder for negative or misleading results to jump to the top results.
Quality and diversity. The best reputation management plans generate a wide range of unique, high-quality content published across multiple sources. When everyone is telling the same story, people (and search engines) are more likely to believe it.
Create unique content. Some people try to bury online reputation problems by posting the same or similar text across dozens of low-quality sites. Don’t do this. It looks suspicious, and it’s easy for search engines to spot. You’ll end up spending a lot of time and money creating sites without any staying power.
Work on quality backlink generation. The more sites refer to your sites, the more highly they will rank. Periodically look for sites who might be willing to link to your materials, then reach out to them.