In the days of the Yellow Pages, a customer looking for your business could find little more than your name, address, and phone number without an exhaustive and expensive search that took skill or outside resources to complete. The miracle of Google, however, has turned every private citizen into a private detective.
Mountains of information are available to everyone, and while this can be immensely beneficial to your business’s visibility, it also means that online reputation management is an absolute must. Follow this guide to avoiding the most common pitfalls that can sink an otherwise awesome business.
You Are Your Business
When you’re in business for yourself, there is simply no getting around the fact that your online reputation and your business’s online reputation are one in the same. While employees who go to work at jobs are usually under an obligation to make sure their personal online lives don’t overlap with their professional digital footprints, entrepreneurs simply don’t have the luxury of switching on and off between online personas.
You are your business. Your business is you.
Instead of trying to compartmentalize your business and personal reputations online, make a concerted effort to merge them. Play your strong suits in both arenas, and take the best from each and merge them into one entity.
Link your business’s website to your Facebook page. Update your personal Twitter account with content from your business blog. Make your strong personal online reputation a selling point for your business.
Digital Footprints Leave Deep Marks
It’s cliche to say that the Internet is forever, but the fact is, that’s pretty close to true. Every message board you’ve ever vented on, every political rant you ever made in the comments section of a blog, every forum you’ve ever gotten into an online squabble on – all of it – is likely still out there. If you can find them, so can potential customers, clients, partners, and competitors.
See what you can find. You’ve almost certainly Googled yourself, and that’s a good start. Try searching your email address – or any old email addresses you previously used. Your email address has likely been your screen name or user ID for a few sites or blogs or message boards you may have joined in the past. Also search any user ID that you frequently use. This could dredge up long-forgotten online activity that could be embarrassing or harmful.
Finally, harness the power of Google Alerts. Simply type in a search string – in this case your name and business’s name – and tell Google which email to send updates to. Google will then alert you to any new mentions of you in any document on the search engine, working for you silently in the background.
Social Media: Blessing and a Curse
Social media is a tool for brand marketing and promoting that is more powerful than perhaps any other in history. Twitter and Facebook in particular have allowed countless businesses to generate dialogue, promote their services, answer questions and complaints, showcase their staff and their talents, and most importantly, tell their stories.
It is also a vortex of irresponsible or short-sighted behavior coming back to haunt business owners who made indiscreet posts regarding their personal lives. When bad photos, irreverent posts (specifically those involving race, politics, or religion), or questionable associations pop up, the first rule – that your business and personal reputations be intertwined – strikes hard.
You should have a Facebook business page. This page should be exclusively about your company. Remove any pictures – no matter how harmless – and other personal items not directly pertaining to your business.
Your personal page can and should contain information about your business, but this is where you’re most likely to get caught with your guard down. To be safe, go to your privacy settings and under “who can see my stuff,” limit the audience for previous posts to just your friends for now.
Also, review all of not just your posts, but the things other people have tagged you in. This will at very least contain any potential indiscretions to just the people you’ve accepted as friends, and removing the chance that the general public will be able to connect them to your business. Once you comb through everything, obviously remove anything you wouldn’t want directly related to your business.
Twitter is a little tougher. It entails going to your profile and literally reading through every tweet.
Reviews Are the New Word of Mouth
Reviews of you and your business hold enormous weight. Fair or not, people go to sites like Yelp and treat the reviews as gospel. A string of great reviews can lead to a flood of new business. A few scathing reviews, and the phone can stop ringing.
Check the major review sites and industry-specific sites for any negative reviews. Petition to have any reviews removed that were left anonymously – a request most sites will honor. When you seal any deal with any customer, ask them to please write a review if they don’t mind. It only takes a few to make your reputation sink or score.
If someone is interested in your business in particular, or the products or services that you sell in general, they’re going to search for it online. That search can give them a window into who you are and what you do, but it can also dredge up a wave of digital pollution you may not have even known was out there.
It is your responsibility to be aware of your digital footprint, to cleanse the tracks you’ve left that could be unflattering, and to play up your strong points. Your business’s online reputation is everything – guard it with your digital life.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Emilian Robert Vicol