Personal Online Reputation Recovery: A Primer

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Posted on February 9, 2016

First impressions matter. You never get a second chance at a first impression. Every touchpoint someone has with you (or your brand) can make or break that first impression. As an individual, even if you don’t see yourself as being in the public eye, the Internet sees it differently. In fact, as too many people have learned the hard way, the Internet can ruin a reputation with speed and efficiency. We live with a permanent record of everything we say and do, whether we like it or not, regardless of our say in the matter. Even if you’ve lived a deliberately quiet life to prevent online troubles, you’re not guaranteed a clean personal reputation online. If you’re not filling up digital space with factual content about yourself, someone else could. And trust me, some people dedicate their existence to this kind of work. I’d link to some examples, but I don’t want to give them any currency. And as brutally unfair as it is, even if someone is not deliberately attacking your reputation, someone who shares your name can just as easily ruin it.

Navigator often gets mandates to help companies and individuals with these types of challenges. Of course, we don’t see this work as ‘online’ reputation recovery; it’s reputation recovery, period. But it’s impossible to do reputation recovery without a digital plan. No matter what lengths you take to recover your reputation in the real world, so long as people can plug your name into Google, you’re vulnerable. What will they find? Do the search results tell your story? Do you own your personal brand? I’d like to take a deep dive into why (online) reputation management and recovery matters, and how you can protect yourself. While I’ll focus on personal reputation recovery, many of these principles apply to brands and businesses too. So, take out your notepad, and let’s get started; I’ve got plenty of actionable take-aways for you.

Why do I need to manage my digital reputation?

For many people, your digital image will be their first impression of you, whether you like it or not. We have seen first-hand that when someone says something nasty about you and it appears on the first page of a search engine’s results—whether it’s true or not— it can have long-term consequences for your reputation.

But just as much as your online reputation can be a liability, it can be an asset. If you’re wont to put your best foot forward in real life, you should also do so in your virtual life. Treat your first page results as your public C.V. You have an opportunity to tell your story. Make sure you’re doing it. If not, someone else eventually will. So, stop what you’re doing, head on over to Google, type in your name, and see if that’s the story you want told. Do the same on Bing and Yahoo. For each result, identify whether it refers to you, and whether or not it’s positive. Also keep a close eye on items that are about someone who shares your name and may have negative content. Sure, that person isn’t you, but don’t expect searchers to always know the difference.

I found something nasty, how can I erase it?

You can’t. Welcome to the Internet, the Wild Wild West of free speech, where even the best lawyers can’t remove slanderous attacks. If you try your hand at a lawsuit, I wish you all the luck in the world. You’ll expend considerable resources, with no guaranteed outcome, while your search results remain unchanged. Instead, you need to manage risk by giving search engines better and fresher content to source. While you cannot completely erase unflattering content, you can work to have it removed from the first page of search results. And that’s what you should focus on— 94% of searchers never click through to the second page. If it’s not on page one, as far as the Internet’s concerned, it doesn’t exist. This is why you need to focus aggressively on these results.

Where do the biggest threats lie?

As a digital guy, it pains me to say this, but this is where traditional media outlets have a leg up. It just takes one negative story in the Toronto Star, or the Globe and Mail, and it can skyrocket to the top of the search results. Media outlets have very high domain authority, which is one of the variables search engines assess in determining rankings.

This is why media relations still matters. In almost all cases, reporters will try to contact you for comment before publishing your story. You need to get your side of the story in that article, because whether you like it not, that article has a very good chance of appearing on page one results. And since we know that’s a likely outcome, you might as well take every possible measure to frame the story on your terms. If the story is published without your share of voice, you might be too late. Don’t let it come to this. This is why a solid media relations strategy is critical to your online reputation. If you want a positive online profile, you need a media relations plan. Period.

If I can’t delete the nasty stuff, how do I fight back?

You fight back with a sea of positive content. If that sounds daunting, you’re right; it is. And when it’s your own reputation on the line, the last thing you want is to be told to be patient. I wish I had a silver bullet for you, but I don’t. If anyone tells you they have it, run away. The best online reputation managers will tell you it takes time and patience to improve search results. It can be done, but it won’t happen overnight. Instead, you have to hunker down, get your elbows up and crank out information about yourself that is truthful. It’s the best way to obscure, then suppress, negative content. Don’t wait until it gets nasty. Build a content wall – a fortress that makes it tough for unwanted content to float to the top of the results. A preventative strategy is by far the best approach for your long-term reputational health.

What can I do right now to take control?

Sophisticated search engine optimization takes engineers and pros who do this work for a living, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting started today. Here are 10 things you can do to get a handle on your online reputation:

Own your domain. Search engines use hundreds of variables to determine how to rank content, and whether a keyword (in this case, your name) appears in the URL is an important factor. A domain name that has your name in it, has a good chance of ranking at the top. Of course, it will only rank if you do something with that domain. Simply owning it isn’t enough. Hence the next step.

Launch a website and produce quality content. Once you have your domain, you need to put it to use. The best way to do that is to launch your own website and use it to share content—ideally in your area of professional expertise. You need to feed the beast that calls himself Google. (Yes, I just personified a search engine, but it’s totally called for, given that the search engine now has its own brain). You don’t need to pump out new content every day, but you will need to develop and stick to a regular schedule. Google prefers fresh content when ranking results. Feed the beast.

Convert your LinkedIn profile into a well-curated news feed. This one’s a big one. LinkedIn profiles skyrocket to the top of search results. That’s why it’s the first social media network I’ve listed here. In terms of personal branding, it’s more effective than the others. If you don’t have a profile yet, get one. If you have one, take 30 minutes right now to give it a thorough update. Make sure all the fields are filled in. Ask professional contacts to give you endorsements and recommendations. Start sharing thoughtful content (your own blog posts, industry news, and trends, etc).

Develop SlideShare content. Now would be a good time for you to develop a slide deck or two, showing off your knowledge and expertise in your industry. This platform also ranks well, and connects to LinkedIn seamlessly (surprise, surprise, LinkedIn owns Slideshare).

Make sure your Twitter account is appropriately named. This isn’t a place to be creative. Stick with your name—you need Google to know which Twitter account is yours, so it can list it in search results. Keep your Twitter feed focused. Find and share useful information on topics in your industry. Engage with others, but only if it helps you build relationships. Don’t spout off your political or religious views unless that’s your business. Instead, write well-crafted tweets that add value to the conversation and attract influencers to follow and engage with you. And while you’re at it, retweet influencers you respect.

Create a Google+ profile: Never heard of Google+? You’re not alone. It’s a highly underused platform, and its death has been predicted countless times in the last five years. Yet, it’s still here. This is a good thing because it’s a Google product and Google connects many dots to build online profiles. You might as well make it easy for the Google universe to know who you are. Add links to your website and other digital properties and profiles. Share your LinkedIn content here too.

Clean-up your Facebook profile. Now would be a good time to do a thorough review of your previous status updates. Unless you’re a ninja with Facebook’s privacy settings, assume that everything you’ve ever published on Facebook is there for the whole world to see. Triage accordingly and delete questionable content.

Set-up an About.me profile. About.me has a high domain authority, which means that search engines give it high rankings in search results. It costs nothing to set up an account and it gives you another platform to promote yourself.

Provide value on Quora. If you haven’t heard of Quora, it’s a question and answer website. Create an account, fill out your profile and search for questions in your industry. Then, go answer them. Even if 10 people have already answered the question, don’t let that stop you. Your job is to write an epic, thoughtful response that demonstrates your knowledge.

Share your amazing website content across all your social media platforms. Doing so gives you an opportunity to engage other key influencers. If you’re going to invest time and effort into producing good content, you want it to get as much mileage as possible. The only person who can get you the mileage you need is you (or someone you’ve designated to do this work for you).

What can I do in the future?

  • Now that you’ve taken all the steps I’ve outlined above, don’t take your foot off the pedal. The moment you stop maintaining your online profile is the moment you tell Google that other content is more relevant. Remember, search engines value fresh content.
  • Don’t forget about the second most popular search engine: YouTube. Much like you should use SlideShare to show off your expertise and add value in your industry, you might want to consider doing the same on YouTube. YouTube videos also rank well in search results (surprise, surprise, Google owns YouTube).
  • Consider writing a Wikipedia article. As you’ve probably seen countless times, Wikipedia content always ranks high in search results. Of course, not every person qualifies for his or her own Wikipedia article. You need to be what Wikipedia deems ‘worthy of notice.’ This means the information must be verifiable via third-party sources. The subject of the article (you), needs to have received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent. In other words, your own website or social media profiles don’t count as third-party validation. This too is where a solid media relations plan can make a world of a difference; there’s a lot of science (and some art) to writing an article that will pass Wikipedia’s test. If you want to take that route, I highly recommend you consult professionals.
  • Write for other websites. The more links you can drive to your own website, the better your chances of boosting its rank. This has the added benefit of helping you drive content from other web properties higher in search results for your keyword.
  • Write a book. I know, this probably sounds like an impossible idea, but writing and publishing a book can do wonders for your online reputation. With it comes earned media, which boosts your search profile and positions you as an expert or authority in your field.

This is a lot of work, how can I do all of this without going crazy?

Dealing with a crisis, especially when it’s personal, is incredibly tough. You spend a lifetime building your reputation, and it can be compromised with just one negative search result. It’s vicious and unfair. The good news is that there are professionals who can help with all of this. If it gets to that point, having people in your corner can make all the difference.

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