Reputation management, as a category of online marketing for brands and small businesses, has evolved over the years in line with the evolution of search and social platforms. A decade ago, when the activity of reputation management was first being defined, it was far from certain that a business could be found online to begin with, for which reason basic listing or “presence” management was often considered a component of reputation. You couldn’t get noticed or reviewed online, after all, if you weren’t there to begin with.
Today, most businesses are well represented at least on major sites like Google and Facebook, and the focus of reputation management has shifted to social networks and major review portals. For the most part, brands think of outlets like Twitter and Facebook as places to manage corporate reputation, whereas local sites like Google and Yelp are important as a source of local reviews. The increasing importance of vertical apps and services has seen more business paying attention to portals that matter for their particular category, such as TripAdvisor, OpenTable, and GrubHub for restaurants.
We’re now in the midst of a growth phase for user-generated content (UGC) that is forcing reputation management to evolve yet again. Google is one of the main drivers of this change, with its recent surge of features related to UGC. The Local Guides program, with its game-like incentives, encourages Google users to provide photos and map updates alongside reviews. And Google’s Questions and Answers feature has opened up an entirely new section of the Maps listing to questions that can be asked and answered by users.
Photos and other non-review UGC may soon become as important as reviews. Certainly photos have that potential, providing as they do a visceral impact with which no text paragraph can compete. Many photos posted by users will reflect well on the business they depict, but some are likely to create reputation problems. Google has helpfully offered businesses the means to complain about photos that are inappropriate, but what to do about photos that are merely unflattering? Businesses need a whole new approach for responding constructively to photo content that may not show them in a positive light. That approach begins with ensuring the business itself is supplying plenty of brand-positive photos in all of its online profiles, an area where many businesses could stand to improve.
The prevalence of photos as a component of reviews is also growing. Most major review sites, including Google, Yelp, and Facebook, allow reviewers to include one or more photos with a published review, and Google gives Local Guides additional points for reviews with photos. Due to their basic psychological appeal, photos are an especially engaging way for consumers to learn about businesses, so I’d predict they will become ever more prominent in all areas of local. Indeed, developments like Snapchat’s map feature indicate the possibility of a purely visual approach to local search, where almost all text is replaced with images.
As for other types of UGC, Google is highly active today in gathering factual input about businesses from its user base. Not only is Google inviting ordinary users to ask and answer questions about a business; the company is actively soliciting feedback from users about basic amenities by asking questions like: “Does this place have wifi?” “Is there a children’s menu?” “Would this be a good choice for a romantic evening?” Though many questions are purely factual, questions like whether a restaurant is romantic slide over into the subjective. Users’ answers to such questions will certainly affect the reputation of a business.
Tools to manage such content are still being perfected. Google now alerts businesses when new user questions are posted to a listing but offers no similar alerts when users answer questions posed by Google itself. In such cases, the only remedy is to supply your own business attributes within the Google My Business dashboard, hopefully outweighing any user content that reflects poorly on your business.
As non-review content grows in prominence, brands and small businesses with be forced to reckon with it. Like reviews, such content both reflects and shapes a brand’s reputation. Unfortunately, many brands are still behind when it comes to engaging with local reviews, so these new developments will represent an even heftier challenge when it comes to crafting an effective and scalable strategy. Brands who neglect UGC in local will suffer greatly in comparison with those who learn how to engage.