Any time you are dealing with reputation management or public relations, you can get into questionable territory. After all, the methods used to help restore the good reputation of an unfairly maligned business are the same ones that could hide the ugly truths about an unscrupulous one. Of course, online reputation management companies keep their client lists confidential, but you can judge which are using ethical techniques by examining their proposals and asking questions. In reviewing proposals from multiple companies, we received quite an education on the methods companies employed. We'd like to share the best and the worst with you.

In the SEO world, these are called white hat and black hat practices, and Google has a list of webmaster guidelines that explains what is allowed and what will hurt your site's standing. In general, white hat techniques are organic; they encourage natural connections and clicking by human beings as they are looking for specific information. Black hat techniques are artificially done (whether by computers or humans hired specifically for the task) for the purpose of bumping your site to the top of search rankings whether it should be there or not. Some techniques are also questionable, but not necessarily against Google guidelines. These, we'll call gray hat, and you should weigh the benefits against the risks.

Because online reputation management has a lot to do with bringing positive and neutral content to the first page of searches while driving third-party negative content off the front page, SEO practices are important to know. However, there are other tactics that we'd consider "black hat" when it comes to ethics.

Briefly, white hat procedures encourage organic search and good handling of reviews and complaints. There are other tools, but these are the backbone of most campaigns. Every proposal we tested had these to some degree.

  • Information-rich content: This is content the reader can use and that makes use of keywords and metatags wihtout overdoing them
  • Positive Reviews: One of the best ways to combat negative publicity is to get positive reviews that are seen
  • Natural back-linking: Having useful articles, blogs and other content that naturally refer back to your website or blog (as opposed to buying links or link-farming)
  • Addressing the negative reviews: The best ORM services help you address the negative publicity, whether by finding evidence that the review is indeed an attack in violation of the complaint site's guidelines or by giving you suggestions for resolving legitimate complaints. However, many online reputation services say that demanding negative reviews be removed from sites like RipOffReport or Yelp is a waste of time; better to drive more positive reviews to the site instead.

Gray hat procedures are more nebulous. Several companies use these, and some of those that don't use these told us specifically it's because they find the long-term risk is not worth the short-term benefit.

  • Click Manipulation: Search engines don t just check to see if a person clicks on a search result, but also if he or she immediately back clicks or actually spends time exploring the site. Some companies employ computers or people to click and back-click the negative reviews while clicking around the positive reviews. This can give a quick boost to the new sites you want to push to the front page. Meanwhile the negative sites that get the quick back-click are considered less useful and get pushed down. This is a common technique used by many online reputation management companies, but they need to walk a careful line with this because too much activity too fast can trigger Google that something is up. If Google thinks a site is artificially promoted this way, it can downgrade or even delist the website, which will cause you more damage than the negative results.
  • Keyword Stuffing: Keywords are still important to searches but should be used sparingly and with purpose. Too many keywords stuffed into your web copy will cause Google to downgrade your site, not to mention, it looks bad to the casual reader. This is an outdated technique that should be avoided.
  • Intimidating Complaint Sites: We are in a litigious society, so the use of lawyers and threat of lawsuit is often a standard practice, particularly where defending a reputation is concerned. Sometimes, they are justified. However, we believe that the tone of this technique determines whether it is justified, gray or "black hat." Many online reputation management companies we considered may suggest contacting complaint sites about reviews that violate their terms of service, including those that may violate trademark. The ones we consider "black hat" make a point of sending letters threatening the complaint site with lawsuit right off the bat. Some suggest tricks to make this more effective. Not only were we uncomfortable with the suggestions and believe our readers may be as well, but most complaint sites will not respond to intimidation.

Naturally, if a company uses black hat procedures, you will want to think twice about taking them on. Some of these are legally allowable, but in our opinion, shady. We do not recommend services that use black-hat procedures.

  • Site Sabotage: The service won't call it this, of course, but the idea is to find the websites that speak negatively about your business and link them to questionable or illegal websites like porn sites or black market websites. Google picks up the negative association and downgrades that website.
  • Artificial Backlinks: In this case, the company purchases backlinks or has a fleet of websites in order to provide a home for backlinks. This goes against Google's terms of service. Even major corporations have been punished by Google for this practice.
  • Scraping Content: Content needs to be original for a website to get good ranking. Repeating the same article or content across many sites is not a good practice but is still allowable. However, copying (or "scraping") content from other related sites to fill your minisites or blogs is black hat and will hurt you.

If you need your online presence improved or have been under a reputation attack online, then online reputation management services may give you the tools you need to get back in the spotlight for the right reasons. However, if you want to promote your good reputation online, it makes sense to hire a service that uses ethical practices. Ask how things are done and look over the proposal carefully, and you can identify the hat the service wears.

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