Had it up to here with self-appointed critics who trash your restaurant on the Internet? Disgusted by how anonymous reviewers slam it on Yelp, Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites? You can’t stop these people from voicing their opinions. But you can make their negative comments about your restaurant a lot harder to find by hiring an online reputation management company. It’s one of the fastest-growing services in the digital world—and Google’s okay with it!
Mario Batali is just one of the chefs and restaurateurs who’s had it up to here with bloggers. He famously posted his opinion about them on the website eater.com last year in an article headlined “Why I Hate Bloggers.” Here’s part of what he had to say.
“I do not really HATE anything or anybody, it takes too much energy to hate, and I would rather dog someone/thing sotto voce to the large audience than spend a lot of time hating them/it. But blogs live by different rules. Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web. This allows them a peculiar and nasty vocabulary that seems to be taken as truth by virtue of the fact that it has been printed somewhere. Unfortunately, this also allows untruths, lies and malicious and personally driven dreck to be quoted as fact. Even a savvy blog like the one you are reading now has strangely superseded truly responsible journalism. It is much more immediate and can skip a lot of the ponderous setup necessary in a news article. It cuts right to the heart of a matter, often disputing it as though real research has taken place.
“My broader point is that the casual and serious reader alike cannot possibly hold the anonymous blogosphere accountable. I think, in fact, many of the readers know this and enjoy the fun. But the blog is now a new partner. Eventually these blog posts become factual information lost in the sauce.”
And Batali feels this way despite being one of the few chefs almost everyone writes nice things about. We can only imagine the treatment less-beloved chefs and restaurateurs receive in the ever-more-vast blogosphere. Restaurateurs are used to criticism, but the unattributed kind that finds it way onto the Internet can really hurt business.
You’ve had to put up with the zero-accountability blogging phenomenon for years. But now a new option has emerged: you can hire an independent, third-party company to manage your online reputation. Their promise: No matter what a disgruntled customer, former employee or competitor posts about your restaurant, the online reputation management company will make it difficult for potential customers to find those negative references on the web.
How do they pull it off? These companies become actively involved in the outcome of search engine results about your operation.
Web masters and web developers have made an art out of optimizing their clients’ search results for years. They construct web pages and design content so that their clients appear high up on the first page of search results returned by Google (which accounts for roughly two-thirds of all searches), Yahoo, AOL or other search engines.
Online reputation managers take this strategy to the next level. They monitor all web content about a client like a restaurant, quickly analyzing it to separate the good from the bad. Then they apply sophisticated search optimization techniques to content containing positive mentions. This causes these pages to appear higher in a potential customer’s search results. Doing so also causes pages with negative mentions get buried deeper in the results list. Ideally they are pushed onto the second or third pages of search results that are returned.
Human nature takes care of the rest. Few online searchers make it past the first page of results, fewer still past the second. According to a study of 650,000 web searches conducted on AOL, 42 percent of web users click through on the very first item on the results list, 11 percent click through on the second.
Is this process legal? Apparently so, whereas blocking the offending pages would not be.
Is it ethical? Perhaps. “We feel that lot of ethical shadiness is happening in this business,” says Michael Fertik, founder of ReputationDefender. He’s one of several people trying to form an Online Reputation Management Association to set industry standards on the use of this technique.
Most importantly, what does Google have to say about it? “If you use spammy or manipulative techniques to get this positive content to rank highly, we may take action on it,” a Google spokesperson told Business Week earlier this year. She was primarily referring to reputation managers who hire writers to post fictitious positive messages about clients on blogs, and then figure out how to make them appear high on search results for that client. In the case of restaurants, there is typically plenty of content, both good and bad, already available to an online reputation management firm. It’s not necessary to write fake positive material.
What’s this service cost? Right now, a bundle. Figure $1,000 per month for a small business, less for an individual. Prices may drop as more firms enter this rapidly emerging business.
Can you do it yourself? It’s doubtful, but whomever you pay to ride herd on your website now could figure it out. They probably already know their way around Google’s webmaster guidelines, which tell them what’s allowed in the search optimization game. However, be aware that Google changes its search algorithm frequently—once a day, on average.
If you or your webmaster wants to find out more, head to www.marketingpilgrim.com/2006/03/online-reputation-monitoring-beginners.html. It’s the website of one of the many reputation management companies, but it provides a good overview of the field. And we wouldn’t be surprised if some sharp web jockey goes into business to offer this service exclusively to restaurants. If that’s you, we suggest making Mario Batali your first sales call. He’s ready to bury the bloggers.