What's Your Online Reputation?

If you don’t think your small artisan business has an online “reputation” – note that all the tweets, postings, links, and so on, that you’ve been accumulating online over the years have been painting an informational picture of your business.

Here’s a question for you: Is it a positive picture?

A recent study showed that 24 percent of online consumers were turned off after reading just two negative reviews. (http://www.bizreport.com/2011/04/27-of-consumers-turned-off-by-just-two-negative-online-revie.html). According to research commissioned by Microsoft http://www.microsoft.com/security/online-privacy/reputation.aspx, 79 percent of the U.S. hiring managers and job recruiters review online reputation information when considering job applicants; 70 percent of the managers in this study have rejected candidates based on inappropriate photos, videos, comments, and a questionable lifestyle.

While you may have no intention of applying for a job any time soon, remember that potential and current customers also have access to this information at their fingertips.

Here are tips for keeping your online reputation squeaky clean.

Facebook is probably the place where you are most likely to let your hair down and post all kinds of photos and make unabashed comments. These postings can come back to haunt you – and your business – if left unchecked.

There’s a neat free tool that tracks your Facebook reputation, www.reppler.com, that provides continuous monitoring of your Facebook activity and “e-personality.”

But don’t just stop with Facebook; do an online search yourself. Just type your first and last name (put quotes around your name) into a few popular search engines, such as Google.com, Yahoo.com, etc., and search for images and text. Next, put in your business name, in quotes, and do the same search. You may also do a search on your nicknames and domain names.  If you participate in other social networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, or photo-sharing sites (Flickr and Snapfish) you will have to do a separate search within these sites.

For an easy way to monitor your name or company name on a daily basis, create a “Google alert” http://www.google.com/alerts with your business name and your name.

Once you find information about your business on the web, take a honest look at what it all means – and says – about you. If there are blog posts about you that are incorrect (even if it’s just a wrong address or phone number), take time to correct the information.

Stay Away from “Hot Button” Topics

Don't assume anything about a customer or supplier's politics, family, or religion when writing emails or making comments on social media, suggest Sally Treadwell, communications director for People Claim (www.peopleclaim.com). “I am often surprised and slightly horrified by the things business acquaintances will comment or message to me,” says Treadwell. She also suggests sticking with the topic on forums. “When you’re you're commenting on a potter's forum, say, don't be tempted into a political diatribe,” she says.

If an online discussion is getting heated -- perhaps during a discussion of upcoming legislation that will affect you and neighboring businesses -- walk away and make a cup of tea before hitting “post” on that comment. Think hard about what your comment will say about you and, by extension, your business, says Treadwell.

Stay Away from Ranting

Realize that “rants” can not only affect your online reputation, but can be subject to lawsuits, says Joy Butler, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who regularly advises companies about their Internet activities; she blogs at www.guidethroughthelegaljungleblog.com, and is author of the new book The Cyber Citizen’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Internet Law for Your Professional Online Presence.

“Telling it ‘like it is’ online can generate accusations of defamation, cyber bullying, trademark infringement and other legal claims with long names,” says Butler on her blog. She suggests that when posting on blogs or other social media you stick to the facts: “Your risks of a defamation claim increase if you stray from verifiable facts when you discuss real people and real events. Changing the names is not always enough,” says Butler.

Lori Gama, a business consultant and president of DaGama Web Studio http://www.DaGamaWebStudio.com, which provides web-related services and author of the blog post, “Did You Know You’re Naked? Your Online Reputation is Showing” http://www.dagamawebstudio.com/blog/2010/10/did-you-know-youre-naked-your-online-reputation-is-showing-2/ says that business owners should always steer away from not only ranting, but any negativity or using swear words, “…unless you want to be known as the ‘salty-tongued’ artisan and it’s part of a persona you are building,” she says.  Otherwise, stick to G-rated content: “Play it safe and you’ll gain more fans, friends and followers,” says Gama.

Keep Your Personal and Business Profiles Separate on Facebook

Often friendly customers will find you on Facebook and ask to “friend” you. Don’t mix your business and personal life by accepting the invitation. Instead, keep two separate Facebook profiles, suggests Treadwell, one for just your close friends and family where you can let your hair down, and another for your “public” persona.  “Use a middle name or nickname to distinguish between the two…and use a cartoon as a profile picture to disguise your private Facebook page,” she says.

Take Your Reputation Building in Your Own Hands

Artisans can counter a questionable online reputation with positive content, says Sally Falkow http://falkowinc.com, adjunct professor at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and author of Online Reputation Management

“Research shows that in the U.S. people need to see positive content about a company as many as nine times before they act,” says Falkow. “So you do have to have your content in many places online. Artisans usually have a wealth of information about their craft that they can share.”

To start on the positive online image-building, Falkow suggests:

1. Claim your Google “places” http://www.google.com/places/  page and fill it with good content.

2. Get satisfied customers to post positive reviews on CitySearch, Yelp and Angie's List.

3. Set up a Facebook page and post good quality, useful and interesting content on the page. Post something every day.

4. Create a page on your website where you can post interesting content twice a week -- a blog or an article page with a news-feed.

5. Post images of your work on Flickr; and make simple “how to” videos about your craft and post them to YouTube.

The bottom line is that if there is a lot of positive about you online, the occasional negative will look like an exception to the rule.  But be pro-active about the positive content.  Don’t wait until someone complains about your work on Yelp, or writes a poor review on Google, says business consultant Gama.  “And then (the negative comments) are the only thing your customers can judge when they start searching online about you…and by then its too late and you’ll be faced with having to put out ‘the fire’ when all you had to do was make your online reputation ‘fireproof’ to begin with.”

MARCIA PASSOS DUFFY (www.backporchpublishing.com) is a freelance business writer based in New Hampshire. Marcia’s articles have appeared on Yahoo Finance, CNBC, Bankrate.com, NFIB.com, Smart Business Magazine, The New York Times Lifewire, The Weather Channel, among others; she is the author of the book, Be Your Own Boss. Marcia wrote this feature article exclusively for Debbie May.com (www.DebbieMay.com), an organization dedicated to helping small businesses succeed.