Columns - Devil's Advocate

Industry journalist Pat Jones presents both sides from his sometimes twisted point of view.

August 24, 2009
Pat Jones

Some call it "ego-surfing." Others call it a "digital reality check." Call it what you will, but all of us should do it every once in a while.

About 15 years ago, I briefly left the green industry and went to work for an advertising and PR firm in Kansas City. The agency was just beginning to get serious about technology and dotcom clients, so I was quickly forced to become proficient in all things Internet and a whole bunch of other computer stuff.

One of my clients was a highly successful national day-care chain. Let’s call them XYZ Academy. This was in the early days of elementary Web browsers, so you really still had to work hard to research stuff online. I used a combination of Lexis/Nexus, various AOL tools and pay-for online services to keep track of news related to XYZ Academy. They loved it because their executives received nearly daily updates on trends, stock quotes and announcements from their competitors.

Then, on a hunch, I enrolled in a few user groups related to parenting and dealing with child care. Oh. My. God. The postings on these forums were packed with complaints – some stunning – about my client. There were allegations ranging from bad food to outright child abuse. I had stumbled into a world my multi-million-dollar client didn’t even know existed – and it was a very bad world for their reputation as a caring and well-managed company.

Monitoring the various user groups and coming up with responses soon became nearly a full-time job. We quickly found that most of the complaints were exaggerated (e.g., overly-sensitive mom escalates a story from simple discipline of an unruly child into full-blown sexual abuse), but some were valid (appallingly dirty bathrooms or cockroach-infested kitchens).

Now, in a nearly totally searchable world, major corporations spend vast sums and employ people full-time just to monitor the Web and take steps to guard their reputations.

You’re probably not a major corporation, but let me ask you this: Have you Googled yourself lately? Have you checked Angie’s List or other consumer sites to see how people are commenting about your services? Do you make a policy of this or involve others in your company to do it regularly?

Comments – both positive and negative – on community forums tend to live forever. One small issue with a customer from years ago can still cost you business today unless you’ve taken steps to counteract them. A few ideas:

• Set up a policy to do a monthly search for your company name and likely variations of it. Set up Google alerts at Don’t blow it off because there may be a ticking online time bomb out there hurting your business every day you don’t know about.

• Google or the new Bing! browser will tell you a lot, but check specifically on local Better Business Bureau sites, consumer affairs sites, local newspaper online forums, etc. Not all of these are searchable by browsers, particularly the privately operated ones like Angie’s List, so just Googling isn’t enough. When you browse, make sure to put your company name and it’s typical misspellings in quotation marks to enhance the efficiency of the search.

• The process should be both defensive (addressing complaints) and offensive (promoting your business). It sounds a bit disingenuous, but you can encourage satisfied customers to log on and post their glowing reviews of your business.

• You may also turn up legitimate problems with your operations or with particular employees. Some clients feel more comfortable bashing you anonymously on the Net than calling you in person. Be prepared to find these kinds of problems, act on them and communicate back to the forum/poster that you’ve done so.

• Also consider that this activity will tell you a lot about where you should invest your advertising budget, and how you should position yourself. The healthy message boards with lots of participation would be a great spot to place an online ad. Furthermore, if you’ve noticed the majority of complaints about contractors seem to be about on-time service, make sure your ad notes that you’re the "on-time company" or whatever it might be.

• Finally, the exercise itself is interesting because you’ll never know what you’ll find. For example, my quick Googling experiment for "lawn care business" turned up this fascinating site: Check it out.

So, I know you have enough to do, but add self-Googlization to your list. You won’t regret spending a few minutes a month to protect your reputation in the brave new world of online customer relations.