One of the funniest moments at SMX West last month was the exchange between Avi Wilenksi (owner of Promediacorp, an SEO company) and Othar Hansson (Google Engineer). Avi had just discussed a case study of how he was able to alter Google Suggest results by “crowdsourcing” people to manually input queries—i.e. by somehow convincing them to type in queries.
Avi’s case study hinged on white-hat online reputation management: his client had a few negative search results, and Google Suggest somehow picked them up. Once “[Client] + scam” or “[Client] + complaints” became an option, it was by far the most interesting option, so it moved up the suggested search list.
As Othar pointed out, any attempt to directly influence Google Suggest results is against Google’s terms of service, and any attempt to do so by paying people to type in searches is pretty clearly black-hat.
Perhaps so, but Avi’s response was that Google doesn’t offer any way for companies to dispute their results, and of course a suggestion like “scam” is going to get more interest than a term like “jobs” or “locations.” (Google has since removed “scam” search suggestions, mitigating some of the problem.)
By the end of the discussion, things had gotten a little heated—Avi brought up the reasonable question of what someone can do (other than using black-hat or even gray techniques) if Google suggest is showing negative results for their brand name.
Here are a few ideas for “white hat” optimization of Google Suggest results.
Use Offline Ads, Especially Radio
My company will probably never run radio ads. Just imagine:
Find out more at double-u double-u double-u dot Blue Fountain Media (all one word, and “fountain,” not “mountain,”) dot com, slash—no, not backslash—website dash design dash development.
If we wanted to make things a little more usable, we could just tell people: “Google ‘Blue Fountain Media web design.’ This isn’t just more usable; it could also influence our Google Suggest results. (Just in case we didn’t want suggestions like “reviews,” “mission statement,” “corp,” or “careers,” to somehow harm us.)
If Avi’s client had run an ad like “Check out our specials! Just Google ‘Bob’s Carpets April Deals’ for more info!” it maybe could have pushed the “scam”-related terms down a notch. Add in some similar terms, and it’s possible to push “scam” down completely.
Radio is the right medium for this because it’s not at all visual. Online ads, of course, can just throw in a link; on TV and in print, you can spell it out. On the radio, you need to give someone something memorable that they can either type in a few minutes later, or write down right then.
Google Suggest is highly sensitive to novelty. Google knows that if there’s a news event, it may change what people are looking for when they type in, say, “Fukushima.”
You can use this to your advantage: coordinate press releases and news events so they lead to a critical mass of searches, which can push down negative suggestions.
This is analogous to traditional crisis management PR techniques. Celebrities inevitably make a big charitable donation right after a big scandal, and companies often launch new products fast to cover up flops.
They’re assuming that the average news consumer can hold only so many associations in their head, and if “generous” or “trendy” pushes out “tacky” or “lackluster,” it’s a win.
If you need a memorable term for your prospective customers to search, try teaming up with another company. For example, a computer retailer might offer a special on Dell computers, which could be found by searching for the retailer’s name plus “Dell.”
The advantage of partnerships is that they give you an entire collection of similar terms to target. One you get [Retailer] + [Brand] + Coupons and [Retailer] + [Brand] + Discounts, it’s a short hop to turning [Retailer] + Coupons or [Retailer] + Discounts into a suggestion on its own.
Of course, these terms work best in combination: an offline ad, highlighting a brand new deal, with a big-name partner, is the perfect way to bait people into searching for exactly what you want them to search for.
It may not be pristine white-hat— in a sense, you are influencing people to do searches—but there’s a long history of advertisers asking people to search for something instead of asking them to type in a URL. (Among other things, this positively influences their custom search, so when they search for a generic term your site will still get a boost.)
A Word Of Warning
If you’re asking people to Google these terms, you may be asking for trouble—because some of them will see “scam” suggestions, and some may even click.
If your “scam” results are nothing damaging, it’s still beneficial to get people Googling your name and appending other suggestions. (And the verb “Google” is the right one, here. Since Google has higher market-share, they have by far the best search suggestions for long-tail terms—they just have more typed-in queries to work with.)
One obvious question is timing. The right time to do reputation management is before you need to.
If you’re in control of the first page of Google for your business name, and you’ve determined the Google Suggest terms in advance, it’s a lot easier to respond to a single negative search result, or a harmful query, instead of a single harmful story and eight unrelated search results.
Fortunately, good online reputation management is a byproduct of a good SEO and social media campaign; if you’re on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and LinkedIn, you have half of the first page of Google sewn up.
Just add a few press releases and off-site reviews from well-regarded sites, and throw in the strategies detailed above, and you’ll have a simple white-hat way to avoid letting harmful rumors and speculative queries negatively impact your business.
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