In business, reputation counts for a lot. And its constituent parts, the contributing factors, are many and complex, from the opinions that customers form about your products or services, to the manner in which you interact with your various stakeholders, to your corporate governance and ethical practices – they all play a role.
Reputations are hard won, and easily lost. They are an asset as valuable as any that appears on a balance sheet, and should be fiercely protected. And nowhere is that more true than online.
Now, more than ever, a company’s reputation is shaped by what people see online – and specifically what they see on the first page of Google search results. Why Google and not other search engines? Well, Google has an 88 percent share of search in the US, so even if you use Bing, nine out of 10 people do not. That’s nine out of 10 customers, investors, would-be employees, legislators, journalists… everyone you want to influence.
And why do we talk about page one of Google specifically? Only 14 percent of people ever look beyond page one, so if we are thinking about where to focus our attention, page one is it. Forget your fancy website, page one of your Google search results is your new shop window. But it’s a window that others get to dress.
What you see when you Google your brand name is what others see. And for many companies – even many sophisticated, mature companies – it’s not a flattering picture.
But why is that?
SEO is not enough
Many companies rightly invest heavily in search engine optimization (SEO), but insufficient attention is paid to optimizing branded search results.
Let’s be clear: what we are talking about here is not SEO. If SEO is about ranking highly in search against the generic terms with which you want to be associated, what we are talking about here is what people see when they search for you by name.
Try it for yourself. Google your own company and what do you see? If you are happy with what you see, then you obviously have this locked down, which is great. But if not, you certainly are not alone.
My colleagues and I conducted an analysis of the companies in the Nasdaq 100 and found that 64 of those companies have negative, unflattering or damaging content sticking to page one of their Google search results – what we’ve come to call ‘news gum syndrome.’ Negative news stories, poor reviews, activist investors, pressure groups, disgruntled employees… it’s all there, doing untold damage to these companies’ reputations (and, potentially, valuations).
What’s more, a lot of that negative content is not the froth of what’s in the news today – we would expect that. No, it’s old. Some of it very old: 14 of those 64 companies affected had negative content that was more than a year old just sitting there on their search results.
Negative content is sticky… And some topics are stickier than others
There are many reasons why negative content is stickier than positive news – it’s a combination of algorithms and psychology.
Google and other search engines do not rank negative content more highly because it is negative, they do so because humans are more likely to click on, read, share, and otherwise engage with negative content. Our brains are just wired that way.
Consequently, negative content just hangs around for longer.
As part of our research, we analyzed what type of negative stories most affected the Nasdaq 100, which companies and sectors were most affected by which topic(s), and how ‘sticky’ that content was.
The bottom line is that many companies clearly lack robust strategies for dealing with the longtail reputational damage caused by these issues.
Who’s managing your reputation?
A lot of this comes down to who is charged with managing your corporate reputation. Your corporate comms team, right? It certainly should be, but our analysis of the Nasdaq 100 suggests this area of online reputation management falls between the cracks between SEO and corp comms. And that’s understandable.
There are remedies for ‘news gum syndrome,’ but those remedies require specialist skills that may not reside within either department. So the negative news just sticks around. But it can be fixed. Your reputation is a valuable asset – it’s time to protect it.