In the online world, your name is your calling card, your presence, the focal point of the world’s attention on you. If you’re a business, it’s the name that people know (and, if you’re doing things right, love) and the one that keeps you afloat.

But not everyone is nice and friendly, and not everything can always go smoothly, so what can you do if you’re an individual, small business or brand that’s gathering a poor online reputation? Perhaps you’ve been the victim of a campaign of slander and now don’t want the first page of Google littered with lies or bad reviews. Or perhaps you used to just have really bad customer service and have turned over a new leaf.

In order to get a good overview of what can be done, we caught up with experts from Brand.com, BrandYourself.com and Reputation.com – all businesses that deal in establishing and fixing online reputation. While all of them essentially deal with the same problem, they come at it from a slightly different way.

Mike Zammuto, president of Brand.com, explained to The Next Web that the reputation industry is now flourishing simply because there are more mechanisms on which people can express their displeasure online, and that more and more people carry out their research, whether it’s looking into a prospective employee or deciding which hotel to stay in.

He added that for some service-oriented businesses the loss of custom as a result of a bad online reputation can be between 10 and 75 percent. Don’t go thinking it’s just hotels that need to keep reputation in mind though, any business that sells its goods online, is in the hospitality trade or is slightly more specialist (like a rehab center or hair loss clinic) all rely heavily on their Web presence and reputation.

Google and beyond

Obviously, Google is the most widely used of search engines generally speaking, so trying to fix any negative online reputation issues will usually start with a focus on improving the first page of Google results, but much of the advice given applies to other major search engines too, and certainly shouldn’t hurt how those others view you.

That said, while the companies we spoke to work differently, much of the advice is focused on a shared key priority: making sure a client’s first page of Google results are relevant and controllable.

Basic advice

For individuals and small businesses the problem of not scoring highly in Google’s results is one that’s easier to head off at the pass, rather than one that’s easy to mop up retrospectively.

All of the experts contacted had slightly different takes (and customers) but they all mentioned some core themes for either building, or attempting to fix, online reputation for you or your business. Here’s some of the basic advice for individuals or small businesses.

1) Buy any domain names you can with your name in them – your full name, not misspellings. SteveBallmerOnline.com is better than SBallmer.com. Google likes domain names, even if you’re not using them.

2) Build one or more personal websites and then apply one of those custom domains to it and add as much relevant information to them as possible - Using something like Tumblr or WordPress will be fine but an aggregator like About.me won’t. It needs to be comprehensive. The more sites you build the better, but only use unique content – if  you’re essentially building the same site twice, don’t do it.

3) Get on the big social media platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook – Also join industry specific ones. If you’re a designer get on Dribbble. If you’re an architect, check out Architizer.  Social networking sites like this are assigned high levels of trust by Google.

4) Apply basic search engine optimization (SEO) to these sites and profiles – For example, use your proper name and fill out as many details as possible. An empty profile doesn’t look relevant to Google.

5) Link them all together - This lets Google know that they’re all high profile pages about you and gives you a better chance of ranking for your name.

6) Set up Google Alerts for your name – so you know when something new is posted about you.

The question is slightly harder for big businesses, as there are likely many more disgruntled people and negative comments, but involves very similar approaches to fix as dealing with an individual. Albeit a costlier one.

How quickly can you expect to see results?

If this was the question you were most keenly looking for, you probably need to realign your expectations. Unless you plan on throwing serious money at the problem – which doesn’t tend to be an option for many small businesses or individuals – it’s a bit like asking how long a piece of string is.

According to the three contacted companies, results can vary according to the specific issue and budget – building a profile is far easier than fixing a damaged one, remember.

Nonetheless, in a ‘proactive situation’ (profile building) results can be “near-immediate”. In other cases, depending on the scale, it could be as little as a couple of weeks ranging up to a month or two before any proper results are seen.

However, if it’s a case of trying to repair an individual’s ranking, rather than trying to establish it, things will likely be harder.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of regular folks, if the damage to their reputation is serious enough, they can’t afford to fix it. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy – and free services can help – to build a reputation but there’s a gap there for fixing a damaged one for someone who can’t justify some reasonably expensive investment of money and just can’t afford to do it.”

The poor score on review sites conundrum

Unhappy customers, personal vendettas, there are likely many reasons someone might want to say unflattering things about a person or brand online. One example that many small business and individuals (as well as bigger brands) will likely be familiar with is review sites like Yelp.com.

Often, small business start out promoting review sites like Yelp and similar, Zammuto explained, but can quickly change their tune.

“The most common and glaring example comes from the anonymous review sites and the like, the Yelps and the Rip Off Reports of the world. Unlike moderated review sites where people have to identify themselves or there’s some sort of recourse, the anonymity of them has blurred the line between review sites and revenge sites.

So a very common case for us is someone comes to us and says ‘Our Yelp page has suddenly been flooded with extraordinarily negative things … what is our recourse?

And unfortunately the more you battle that out online, the more you’re encouraging activity around that profile and the higher it will rank [in Google] when people search for you. So there’s sort of this unintended consequence of defending yourself on some of these things. If you can’t ultimately drive a positive outcome, you’ll drive a negative outcome because it makes it easier to find these things.”

That’s not to say that Zammuto thinks there’s no point in trying to tackle these kinds of issues, but if you do, you better make sure you have pockets deep enough to sustain all the activity you’ll need to do to score a clean front page Google ranking, as the cost for an individual can be prohibitive.

“There’s quite a demand from the consumer side. Our service is on the expensive side, typically they’re justifying it because of professional brands or something like that, but yes, consumer is only a small part of our business.”

For individuals that don’t have the profile or the deep pockets to hire Brand.com or other specialized reputation management companies, it offers advice on what they can do with things like social media profiles, and as importantly, telling them about the sort of advice they don’t need to be paying for, as well as offering their own free advice portal.

BrandYourself.com walks a different line, in that rather than target high net worth individuals or big brands specifically, it provides a set of self-service tools to provide a less costly service than some of the larger companies. Of course, for those bigger clients (or bigger problems) it provides an additional set of optional services.

The difference in target market shows through in a difference in approach to the problems of online reputation management.

Taking the Yelp example from above, that’s not how Patrick Ambron, co-founder, of Brand-Yourself.com sees it. He actually encourages businesses to engage with Yelp from the start in order to avoid problems down the road.

“You’re going to be on Yelp either way, you may as well own that profile and have it there. Assuming your a good business, you’re going to get more positive rewards than bad ones. Reward customers for writing a good review, like ‘Hey, if you like this and you want to leave a review, your next meal is free”, you basically want to overshadow any bad ones by empowering your good experiences.

We work with a lot of individuals and businesses and the real goal is to at least put them in a place where they own the first page of Google with stuff they control, accurate, relevant things. It’s about putting your best foot forward.”

Big Brands

So, it seems that the company or tools you use to fix or build your online reputation vary depending on your specific situation.

For big brands, much of the same advice applies, although it will involve teams of people all working together to create a reinvigorated brand image. As such, companies that deal with bigger clients tend to use a combination of strategies.

For example, attempting to pull together online media strategies with public relations messages, but to do so in a way that is intended to rank organically online because it engages with users. Brand.com, Zamutto explained, actually owns some of its own news sites that have independent editorial content (“they’re real news sites”, in his words) but they will also run sponsored posts. The company seeks out influential bloggers to write sponsored posts on their own sites, too.

While some people might brace at the mention of sponsored posts on a site, these techniques are at least better than the early Black Hat SEO techniques that led Google to implement its search engine algorithm change that diminished the value of content farms dramatically.

Featured Image Credit – Thinkstock