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Search engine optimization vs. online reputation management

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

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Search engine optimization (SEO) and online reputation management (ORM) are related and use similar techniques, but the two fields have completely different objectives that likewise require different approaches. SEO is about getting your website to rank higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs), but ORM is about controlling the online conversation. Using SEO tactics for an ORM problem is counterproductive—and vice versa. Here are some of the ways SEO and ORM differ.

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SEO Goal ORM Goal
  • ORM vs SEO, SEO diagram 1
    Rank your website #1 in search
    ORM vs SEO, ORM diagram 1
    Fill search page 1 with positive content
  • ORM vs SEO, SEO diagram 2
    Move your website up in search
    ORM vs SEO, ORM diagram 2
    Displace misleading websites in search
  • ORM vs SEO, SEO diagram 3
    Go viral
    ORM vs SEO, ORM diagram 3
    Avoid going viral
  • ORM vs SEO, SEO diagram 4
    Rank for many related search terms
    ORM vs SEO, ORM diagram 4
    Dominate a few specific search terms


SEO leverages search engine ranking to help people find a specific website that the client controls, while ORM uses ranking to make sure people find one or more websites from a large range of sites, many of which the client does not control.


SEO is about getting a specific website noticed. As such, the goal is to make your site (usually the mobile version, as over half of all searches now occur on mobile) the first result people see in the SERPs when they search for keywords related to your business.

If you are focused on SEO, you don’t care what other results are on the page, just as long as you are in the number-one spot (or even position 0, which is the featured snippet that precedes the organic results). In fact, having a list of competitors ranking below you is solid proof that your business is the most popular.

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ORM isn’t about getting a particular website noticed; it’s about promoting an idea or concept by carefully curating which websites appear in your search results. Your goal is to have all the results on the first page convey a consistent (positive) message about you or your brand.

SERP movement

SEO’s goal is to own position #1 in the search results. ORM’s goal is to own page 1 of the search results.


SEO is something you do one website at a time. Most work centers around improving the on-page and off-page factors that search engines use to rank websites, with the goal of Google viewing your site as the best (or most trustworthy) answer to a searcher’s question.


ORM targets all the results on your SERPs, displacing negative or misleading items and replacing them with positive content. Because search results that contain competing messages can weaken the online image you are trying to project, you want to shift these results to the lowest possible spot—and ideally, off the page entirely, where they are effectively invisible to most searchers. The goal is to populate the search results with items that help you make the best possible first impression online.

Going viral

SEO puts a high value on content going viral. ORM tries to avoid having certain types of content go viral.


Because viral content exposes thousands of potential customers to your business, having an article or social media post go viral will result in more clicks and links to your site. These factors tell Google that your site addresses the search intent behind the keywords people are using. More engagement also adds to your site’s authoritativeness and expertise on the topic, and these things make Google rank your site higher.

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Unlike SEO, viral content isn’t always a benefit for ORM. Negative content rapidly spreading across the Internet can make controlling the first page of your search results—which is already a challenging job—even more difficult. This is because Google’s algorithms rank content by what’s popular, not by what’s true and most relevant. And because the things that people click on the most tend to be gossipy and salacious, these kinds of results are hard to displace.

However, positive viral content will quickly rise to the top of the SERPs. This helps move negative results on to subsequent pages, thus making it easier for you to promote the right image.

Number of search terms

SEO is focused on broad-match terms—the more the better—which are usually generic nouns or categories. ORM focuses on one or two specific terms, which are usually a proper name or a brand name.


The goal of SEO is to draw as many customers as possible to your website. Because Google generates results based on what a searcher means (using a technique called natural language processing, or NLP), in addition to results for specific keywords, SEO practitioners need to optimize their content to rank for a wide range of keywords.

For example, if you sell quilted handbags on your site, then you would target your main search term, quilted handbags, as well as long tail keywords (words or phrases related to your product), such as women’s handbagsfabric purses, and quilted accessories.

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If you are trying to manage your online reputation, then you want to dominate search results for your name or your business name. This way, you can change what others see when they research you. For example, if you’re a lawyer named John Smith in Denver, you’re not as concerned with what people find when they search for “Denver lawyer.” You care about what they see when they’re looking specifically for you.

As such, online reputation management search terms for individuals usually take the form of firstname + lastname or firstname + lastname + occupation/location. For example John SmithJohn Smith Denver, or John Smith lawyer. Similarly, if you run a business, your search terms would be companyname or companyname + location:  e.g.,  Jane’s Donuts or Jane’s Donuts Seattle.

Want more information?

Now that you’ve learned the basic differences between SEO and ORM, you might want to learn how to use these techniques to manage your online reputation. For detailed instructions on how to deal with specific reputation problems, see the following articles: