Reputation Management: How to handle online sabotage attacks
In 2013 I was invited to interview for a Search Engine Analyst position for a security company that was having problems with the search engine results page (SERP) for all major search engines.
There were a lot of links pointing to negative claims about the company, mainly from two sources: an article written with a blatant bias against the company, which was surprising because it was from an otherwise reputable news website, but also from users in the comments section of almost every single press release published on behalf of this company.
They were just blasting the company in every article they could find about them on the web.
This company, let’s call them XYZ Company, hired me for the specific purpose of removing these links that pointed to negative comments and online sabotage attacks about them from all search results and optimizing links that point to positive or more fact-based information, in the hopes that that would better their chances of winning a particularly large contract that they were bidding on.
Clearly, the first thing I had to do was to read what these people, who I found out were largely competitors, were saying. Then to find out for myself if the claims had any truth to them, because of course, if any of the claims were true it wouldn’t matter if I succeeded in removing them because there would always be more negative comments due to their shady business practices.
What I found was that, as I alluded to earlier, most of the comments were coming from a handful of people who were in the same industry, and they were claiming that the company was a fraud, that they did not really have the clients that they claimed, that they didn’t pay their employees a fair salary, all of which I could confirm was untrue.
Plan of action against online sabotage attacks.
So I moved on to the second phase of my task, which was to develop a plan of action. I did some research and discovered that the consensus among SEO professionals on the best way to handle online attacks was to simply approach the owner/editor of the website, and see if they would work with you in removing the attack. Simultaneously, of course, you want to boost the performance of all the other links that point to positive and factual information about your company.
So in this case I took off my SEO hat, and put on my salesman hat, and started making phone calls and sending emails to the editors of the websites that allowed these comments to be posted on their website. I told them that as a full-time employee of the company I could verify that everything that was being said about the company was untrue. Plus all of the attacks were coming from direct competitors in the same business.
Winning them over
Slowly but surely I won most of them over. One last publication simply refused to take anything down citing the first amendment and freedom of speech. I have to admit I understood where they were coming from, however, I had a job to do and as such, I came up with the final solution: develop a circle of trusted publications who were willing to either eliminate or monitor the comments sections of our press releases to ensure that our attackers were not able to continue their online war.
Developing a professional relationship
This plan worked out. Over the next six weeks, I developed a fruitful professional relationship with about a dozen editors from industry-relevant publications who agreed to not allow any negative comments, or in some cases, not allow any comments at all on our releases to them. The search results soon changed to reflect a more fact-driven list of links rather than an attack party on my employer.
The First Amendment
I must admit I do wish that I didn’t have to flirt with stepping on the toes of the First Amendment, and I think there’s a slippery slope we must be careful of here, because if all companies start to fear comments for all their articles, publishers may eventually eliminate the ability for the general public to voice their opinions. However, I believe that most people are not going to launch a malicious campaign against their competitors like this and that we should not have to fear the revocation of comments sections in the future.
Update 8/2015: Ask about our Reputation and Review Management System