9 Key Points for Cleaning Up Your Online Reputation Nightmare Via SEO

Columnist Chris Silver Smith discusses how to highlight the positive and better hide the negative to improve how you look online -- without breaking the bank.

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The Online Reputation Management (“ORM”) sector has been estimated to be a $5 billion industry, handling the development, monitoring and repair of the online identities of individuals and brands. While this is a robust industry, you don’t have to break the bank to correct a reputation situation for yourself or a business. It can even be a DIY project — it isn’t rocket science!

A straightforward defamation case can cost $10,000 in legal fees, just as a starting point — and, those cases can still require some amount of SEO work in combination with the legal efforts to get things cleaned up (publishers in the U.S. are not considered legally responsible for what others may post on their sites, so social media sites or search engines may choose not to remove damaging materials in some cases).

Also, some of the larger reputation repair firms can charge premium fees over the course of many months to get nasty stuff fixed. (In some cases, the shadier reputation firms can actually be the very same sites that are damaging your reputation, such as this revenge porn site operator!)

These tips are primarily for those taking a DIY approach to cleaning up their search results, but this information can also be of use to internet marketing agencies that are looking to mitigate a client’s reputation issue. When agencies ask me to look at the repair work they’re doing for a client, I usually find that they’re doing a number of very beneficial and capable things, but they may have missed a few of the basics (or just not gone quite far enough to push the negatives further down).

The SEO And ORM Relationship

As you may know, SEO or Search Engine Optimization is a set of practices geared towards improving a site’s or page’s rankings in search engine results. Many ecommerce companies use SEO, for instance, in getting their pages about products and services to rank advantageously in search results. In online reputation repair cases, we’re doing a similar thing, although the focus is placed on a name or identity that is represented upon multiple pages instead of a primary one.

If you have one or two negative things that appear in search results when your name is searched upon — whether they are RipOff Reports, an arrest record, a defamatory statement or a negative review page — there will typically be a combination of other pages within the results that are either positive or neutral.

For an online reputation repair project, we’re looking to enhance the ranking capability of the positive and negative items appearing in search results so that they may improve and ascend, displacing the negative content. We may also create additional new, positive content to either help the other good stuff or to introduce strategically advantageous new stuff that might rank higher than the bad stuff.

Here are some basic SEO points to keep in mind:

1. Include Your Name Within Positive Content

There may be good content about you already, but if your name isn’t closely associated with that content, it’ll be less powerful than any negative content specifically targeting your name.

For the sake of search engine algorithms, you’ll want your name in the text on the pages of good content, and you’ll want it to appear in a number of advantageous places in the page code. Of course, this is assuming you’re able to influence or edit the page(s) in question.

2. Ensure Positive Pages Contain Your Name In The Title Tag

The page’s HTML title element is perhaps the most important item for zeroing in on your name and making the page rank well when that name is searched. The page’s title should contain your name — spelled exactly like you spell it, leaving out initials or additional titles (Jr, Dr., Mr/Mrs, etc.) if you don’t commonly use that when listing your name. (Conversely, it should be included if the people who search for your name online are likely to use it when conducting searches.)

For things like your social media profile pages, the user name or field where you specify how your name appears will automatically handle publishing this in the title — so you don’t necessarily have to have direct access to the page’s HTML code (or web development knowledge) to edit the title tag.

3. Ensure Positive Pages Contain Your Name In The URL

Ideally, the page’s URL should contain your name, just as the title should. Example: www.awebsite.com/Your-Name.html

As with page title elements, many social media services and online directories may automatically parse your proper name into the URL. In other cases (such as websites you control or have access to), dashboards or settings pages may require you to manually specify the page URL.

When including your name in a page URL, it does not matter if the name is in uppercase, lowercase or a mixture — search engines are primarily case-insensitive. Note that most websites will not allow one to have spaces in URLs, which makes a real difference in multiple-word names (ex: “John Smith”). Instead, they may allow dashes, periods, underscores or even parenthesis.

Google and other search engines treat some of these types of other characters as “white space” characters, essentially using them just like spaces and enabling them to influence rankings for multi-word searches. While visually appealing, underscores are not treated as white space characters, so one should avoid them. It’s best to use a dash or a period, which are considered white space characters (ex: “john.smith” or “john-smith”). Your second best choice is probably a URL term that leaves out spaces (ex: “johnsmith”).

If those options are unavailable, you still might opt for using the underscore (ex: “john_smith”) as your third choice, as it may still enhance your search rankings some, albeit at a weaker level as a “fuzzy” match rather than the stronger exact match option.

4. Register & Build Out A Domain Containing Your Name

It’s good to have a website that has your targeted name as the domain name (ex: www.johnsmith.com). If you have this, it already accomplishes including the name within the URL — and, having the keyword as the domain name is a very strong ranking element in SEO terms.

Businesses will likely already have a domain name that’s a variation of their brand name, but for individuals that have common proper name combinations (like our hypothetical “John Smith”), there’s a high chance that an exact-match domain name will be unavailable or already owned by another person. In that event, one would hope that the other individual has a good reputation online and presents a positive identity on their site! If that’s the case, you could consider that other person’s site to be an advantage in your reputation repair struggle (see my note below about leveraging other, unrelated pages for a positive effect in your efforts).

What top-level domain (“TLD”) should you have? The .COM TLD performs the best in most cases, though .NET will work well, too. (For a nonprofit organization, it might be best to select the .ORG TLD.)

There are additional TLDs that are quite strong as second choices, such as .TEL, .BIZ, and .ME. I primarily advise against other, oddball TLDs, though research indicates that new TLDs can perform well in terms of searcher clickthrough behavior — however, I suspect these may not perform equally in other search engines. There can also be additional considerations regarding distinction, trustworthiness and professionalism, so proceed carefully if you go outside of the more common .COM and .NET choices.

Remember, it’s not enough to simply register a domain for your name. You also need to build out content on that domain.

How much content you’ll need to build out will vary from case to case, but it’s good to start small. Create some simple text that includes the target name, and be sure to include the name in your title tag and in HTML header tags (<h1>, <h2>, etc.) as well. This text is easily read by search engines and can increase your domain’s relevancy score for your target name, thus enabling it to more effectively rank higher for searches on that name.

5. Set Up Social Media Profiles In Your Name

It’s important that you have robust, public social media profiles on some of the most popular (and thus strongest) social services out there, like Facebook and Twitter.

Frequently, businesses or individuals may already have a few of these — if so, you should insure that they are set up optimally by including your name and claiming a custom URL containing that name as described above (ex: twitter.com/johnsmith).

Consider also that there may be many more social media services that could prove valuable in cleaning up your name online. MySpace, while used less these days, still has some ranking power. Other popular services can include Delicious, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Reddit.

In addition to creating a profile, it may also be necessary to develop those social profiles to some degree. For example, you may need to expand your numbers of followers, engagement levels, and influence on those services in order to give those social accounts the power necessary for them to rank well for your name. (As a bonus, this will also make them strong properties for helping your other content to rank.)

Your influence scores, as reflected by services like Kred and Klout, can be used to give you an idea of how you’re doing as you engage with those services and develop them out.

6. Post Images That Represent Your Name

Post some images representing your name! If you’re building a page or site to focus on your name, you should post a few key images on it to further focus in on your name. For a business site, the key image is the logo. For a personal site, the key image should be a portrait of the individual.

Ideally, the filename will include the name, formatted like I outlined above for the page URL (ex: “john-smith.jpg” or “acme-products-inc.jpg”), and the image’s ALT text attribute will also feature the name (ex: <img src=”john-smith.jpg” alt=”John Smith” />).

Beyond your site or page, it’s also ideal to post a few images of the subject on image sharing sites, using similar image/file/URL naming conventions. Where possible, link those image pages back to your main site or page. Some good places to share images include Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

7. Build Links And Reference Citations

Links still comprise an important part of Google’s search engine ranking algorithm, so it’s a good idea to build links to the properties you’d like to be ranking well.

You can validly interlink among your social media accounts — it’s quite common for blogs and websites to list out links to their official social media accounts, or display a set of icon link buttons to those accounts. You may also periodically post links to your content on various services, such as images you publish, blog posts, videos and even status updates from other social media accounts.

Note: You may need to read up on developing links and how to go about it, because if you go overboard or do something that runs counter to search engine policies, it can negatively impact the rankings and presence of your website in search engine results. Generally speaking, though, it’s fine to interlink your social media accounts and post materials on them so long as you are not automatically publishing tons of material, such as dozens of status updates per hour, etc.

For small businesses, one method for rapidly building out links and reference citations is to distribute your business information (name, address, phone number, website and social media links) through a listing distribution service. Some of these include: Localeze, Neustar, UBL, and ReachLocal. (Disclosure: I am an advisor for UBL.)

A listing distributor will send out your information to many online directories, internet yellow pages, local search engines and other directory services so that all of these data sources will refer back to your main web presence components.

You can set up your information for free at all these places, too, but it can take hours — thus, your time might more effectively be spent if you have a distributor to deploy it on your behalf.

8. Create A Video In Your Name

Videos use up a lot of real estate in the search engine results pages, so it’s a great idea to leverage video content if you can. You could create a brief video resume, a biography for an individual, or a sort of lowkey advertisement for a business.

Don’t be intimidated — this is not a complicated thing to do, and it’s become increasingly easy with the ready availability of phones, tablets and laptops that have built-in cameras.

If you don’t want to shoot a video, you could alternatively use a number of images and text to compose a video sequence, using free online video creation tools or slideshow presentation software.

Once you’ve created a video, you should then share it — again, naming it with your primary keyword and adding description information that mentions your keyword. The best place for you to share the video is likely to be YouTube, because of its built-in popularity and search-friendly site design. However, there are other video services that rank well in search, such as Vimeo.

A video is almost a slam-dunk in a reputation repair project, because most reputation-damaging materials are typically not video content — and, Google likes video content that targets a keyword, giving it special power to rank high in search engine results.

9. Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Don’t expect results fresh out of the box. Building and establishing a website, social media profile, or other web property/asset takes time — it can take weeks or even months for all of your efforts to pay off.

It’s often the case that one must steadily and consistently publish blog posts and post status updates for some time in order for each asset to accrue enough ranking power to offset sometimes-stickier negative content.

A Note On Checking Your Progress

It’s a good idea to take screengrabs of your search results in Google and Bing for the first few pages of results right before you do anything, then compare with new screenshots periodically afterwards.

Be aware that you may be making progress without seeing it! Search engines personalize and change the order of search results based upon a number of factors, such as your location and search history. Thus, you must attempt to get an objective view of how others may see search results containing your name.

Many browsers have a private browsing feature which sidesteps personalization somewhat. If you use Firefox, CTRL+Shift+P will open a private browsing window; for Google Chrome users, CTRL+Shift+N opens an “incognito” window. Use these private browsing windows to check your progress.

I should also warn you that the searches you yourself conduct may affect your search results reputation, too, because Google may use number of searches, revised searches, and click-throughs to listings in search results as yet more ranking factors.

In other words, if you search for your name and click on a negative item a lot, you may be reinforcing and expanding its ranking power. If you need to keep tabs on the content of a negative page, I suggest that you click through to the page once, copy the URL, and then just navigate directly to that URL thereafter. This will allow you to avoid clicking on it in the search results.

Similarly, you should avoid searching for you name and combining the keyword with negative-sounding terms (ex: “John Smith, Jerk” or “Acme Products Scam”). If you search with your name too often in combination with a negative term, the entire phrase can start appearing as an Autocomplete term or a Related Searches term.

Whatever you do, don’t despair! Reputation repair on your name is not a fun prospect. However, using these basic steps, you should reasonably expect to get a few more positive assets to begin appearing on the first page of search engine results, where they may begin to push down the negative content. Even moving a negative item down one row in the search results page can equate to a 15% reduction in visibility — or more!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Chris Silver Smith
Chris Smith is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter and see more of his writing on reputation management on Search Engine Land.

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