What’s past is prologue.
Shakespeare coined this phrase in ‘The Tempest’, in a context that originally spoke to the post-hoc rationalizing nature of fate. In today’s world, when we hear these words, it usually – at least, according to Wikipedia – means the speaker is referring to the role history plays in shaping and creating the present. The quotation is engraved on a statue outside the National Archives here in Washington, DC. It feels a bit like we’re being warned: he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.
In the rapidly evolving world of online media, that’s certainly the case. We can refine Shakespeare’s sentiment a bit by reaching back to the father of modern media theory, Marshall McLuhan. His tetrad of media effects is a fascinating way to look at the foundation-shattering nature of new media; one of the core insights is that, contrary to intuition, a new medium will enhance and obsolesce previously existing technologies, but also retrieves elements from the past. He who learns from history will still probably repeat some part of it.
All of this is an overly academic way of getting to the central point here: as reputation management moves into the future, the field is simultaneously innovating and reverting to its previous incarnations.
In the last decade, the nature of shaping and controlling your brand and reputation has metastasized into something 20th century PR professionals would barely recognize. The rise of the search engine. The emergence of social media and crowd-sourced reviews. The power of the consumer to impact brands with grass roots campaigns. Everything is now shaped by reciprocal engagement, and content is king (or so goes the cliché).
The world knows this, of course. It’s old news in 2013. This is not incisive commentary. It’s pablum. The Internet has revolutionized the way people interact with brands and companies. But here’s where it gets interesting. In the past twelve months – and largely in the wake of the Panda and Penguin updates – we’re seeing ORM mutate yet again. In Google’s never-ending pursuit of the perfectly usable set of search results, localized content is at the forefront. If “reputation” began as chatter around the fire pit millennia ago before exploding around the globe via the world wide web, it’s now coming home to roost.
The cutting edge of ORM lies with localized results. And I don’t mean Yelp reviews, Yahoo business listings, and Google Maps. Yes, all of those pieces are essential to the reputational puzzle for many businesses, large and small. But we’re now observing something more radical: organic results that look dramatically different in a very specific way based on geography.
For example, one of our clients operates out of NY. We’ve been tasked with shaping this client’s search results to reduce the visibility of one particular editorial with an obviously biased and negative slant (meaning, we want to prevent it from ranking on page one), and here’s what is interesting:
- This negative content lives on a NY-based newspaper’s domain
- Traditional ORM efforts have displaced the content so that it’s been bumped down to page two
- Unless you submit your search query from an IP address in New York City
In New York, the NY-based editorial remains on page one. In San Francisco, a SF-based news article takes the place of the NY editorial. And in Washington DC, we have DC-based content. What have we learned from this, and how have we reacted? What does this mean for you?
As recently as last year, geographical results were rarely as distinct as this. ORM now requires more monitoring, more focus, and a potentially endless number of carefully tailored approaches. A few important points to keep in mind:
- Make sure you’re accurately monitoring the localized sets of results that are important to you. This means logging out of your Gmail account (or any other account tied to Google). It may require manually changing your search settings (which you can edit by clicking on the gear icon on the right-hand side of Google’s results page). If you or your business relies on customers from more than one metro area, make sure you monitor all of them on a regular basis.
- If you notice a substantial difference in your SERPs due to geography, run a comparative analysis. What is different? Are you seeing roughly similar results, but with the “substitution” of one local newspaper article for another? That’s been our experience, and it demands a degree of strategic regional focus when managing press coverage. Is there a harmful piece of content in the Akron Beacon Journal? Find another Akron-based news source that speaks of you in a positive light, and make that third-party content the focus of your SEO program.
- Take a deeper look at your search results, and ensure you’ve optimized page one. Recent observation suggests that the Google algorithm may divide content into “categories” and reserves specific SERP slots for specific kinds of content. Figure out if you’re taking full advantage of social media, news coverage, and crowd-sourced content. All three of these “categories” will shape your online presence.
- Do the little things. Make sure you have a Google+ page that links your website to your physical location. This and this alone can make a big difference in establishing your brand in the eyes of the algorithm. Keep your address and copyright up to date on your website.
Bottom line: it’s now clear that “the Internet”, as experienced through Google, is not a monolith. An e-commerce company may care about worldwide results. A regional client may need to monitor results in a subset of cities, and an individual may care solely about the results in one locale. It is not enough to simply perform a search on your brand from your own desk in Philadelphia or Boston or Los Angeles. You need to know what those results look like everywhere, in every city that impacts your business and your reputation. It’s a big job.
And, in a tip of the hat to Marshall McLuhan, that’s what ORM is now retrieving from the past: reputational value that is segmented down to the local tribe.