When comparing online reputation management (ORM) companies, it’s very difficult to determine which ones are trustworthy. That’s because there’s a massive list of firms that overpromise and underdeliver, and there’s no effective way to vet their tactics or long-term results.

Even firms at the higher end of the reputation management pricing spectrum that boast A-list client logos and get tons of publicity employ hollow SEO strategies. This exposes their customers to unnecessary risk and financial losses, and sometimes it puts them in a worse position than if they had done nothing.

The purpose of this article is to arm you with 10 crucial questions that you must ask during the vetting process so you can make a more informed decision about which company to partner with. The answers to these basic questions will reveal volumes about a firm’s strategy, their level of expertise, the quality of their work, the longevity of their results, and their trustworthiness as a business partner.

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The role of SEO in online reputation management

In order to vet an SEO company, you have to understand a bit about the history of Google search and the basics of how their algorithm works.

Make no mistake, Google evaluates hundreds of ranking factors, and many of them are unknown. But Google has confirmed several powerful signals which we can organize into two major buckets:

  • On-page signals (information that appears in technical and contextual components of a web page)
  • Off-page signals (information gathered from inbound citations and links pointing to a web page).

Each is about 50% responsible for dictating search performance. To put it simply, Google looks at how keywords appear in the technical elements of a webpage (such as the URL and title tag) as well as how search terms are used throughout the body content. Google also looks for clues in the hyperlinks pointing to a webpage from other domains, including the anchor text and the context of the link within the sentence, paragraph, subheading and page.

Gaming the system

Knowing how Google ranks content, many reputation management companies employ high-risk spam tactics in an attempt to game the algorithm rather than comply with Google’s guidelines. They unnaturally pack keywords into the technical components and content of a page as well as within inbound hyperlinks and the text that surrounds those links.

Some firms even purchase hundreds of low-quality websites (known as a content farm or Private Blog Network) for the sole purpose of inserting manipulative hyperlinks aimed at their customers’ websites. To make matters worse, many of these agencies place links for multiple customers all on the same websites and web articles. Doing so exposes their entire customer list and makes it very obvious to the general public that their customers are paying for low quality, manipulative reputation management services.

You must avoid these SEO companies at all costs or you could become the next cover story on the Wall Street Journal about manipulative SEO practices!

Google algorithms get more sophisticated every day – updating on a rolling basis and hyper focused on combating spam tactics and paid links. Google doesn’t catch everything right away, but eventually they do. There is a short window of time between when poor SEO appears to work and when Google devalues or penalizes an individual or company for violating their guidelines. This is the time period when opportunistic sham SEO companies will gladly cash your checks for unsustainable short-term gains.

Unfortunately, when the dust settles, those customers are left dealing with the damage while their SEO company moves on to the next unsuspecting target.

Quality, trust and brand alignment

First and foremost, Google rewards quality web assets that are well structured, well written, trustworthy, and that satisfy user search intent. You need to hire a company that views search experience through the same lens as Google. As an Enterprise ORM firm, we don’t crank out generic web content stuffed with keywords. We do extensive research about you, your company and your target audience and align your web presence appropriately.

Another barometer for good SEO is a holistic strategy that focuses on earning natural citations, links, and ongoing engagement from authoritative web entities. We cater to your target audience and develop real relationships – finding no purpose for bad link neighborhoods and steering clear of spam websites like the aforementioned.

Unfortunately, disreputable firms aren’t always easy to spot. They often claim that their work is top notch while hiding their true tactics behind statements of privacy and anonymity.

But there are questions you can ask to determine if a company employs reputation management tactics that set you up for long term success — or a future shrouded in uncertainty.

Questions to reveal a high-risk reputation management company

1. Is SEO and reputation management your core competency?

Their approach

New companies pop up every day that claim to do SEO and reputation management. Some are shell companies that don’t actually perform SEO, they just white label it or outsource the work. Others are traditional PR firms that decide to offer SEO as an add-on service but with very limited capabilities. And some firms have only been in business for several months and don’t actually know what they are doing – likely charging you for speculative SEO tactics they read about in uninformed blog posts and forums.

The minority of reputation management firms are actual SEO companies that try to work within Google’s guidelines but most of them do not have the proper resources, expertise and software required to provide reputation management for enterprise companies where the complexity and stakes are much higher.

Do your homework and select a company that has longevity in the industry. Ask them to prove to you that SEO is their core competency. Make sure that they do all work in-house rather than outsourcing to third parties.

After 20 years of being in the SEO and reputation management business, we have seen it all. Even behemoth brands aren’t immune to paying for deceptive reputation management services that provide no transparency or long term ROI.

Our approach

We offer our customers an inside look at our company headquarters and facilitate a meet and greet with the team so you’ll know who’s working on your project. We also walk you through our proprietary software tools that we invested millions of dollars developing. Great reputation management companies don’t pop up overnight and lease generic software. We develop our own technology and processes and build an infrastructure around them.

2. What does the pricing structure look like?

Their approach

If the payment structure sounds convoluted, the strategy likely is also. If your fees change each month, then your SEO firm probably isn’t going to be executing on a consistent strategy with long-term goals in mind. The fluctuating costs are reflective of the ad hoc nature of their work and sustainable results are impossible to achieve. A well thought out reputation management strategy is just like exercise. You need to work at it all the time to achieve desired results and then also maintain your desired results. However, the “workload” shouldn’t spike or surge over time nor should the associated costs.

Our approach

We charge a flat monthly retainer based on how many goals we’re trying to achieve simultaneously and the resources required to do it. Just like a healthy exercise regimen, SEO activity is mostly consistent day in and day out, year after year. The strategy works towards long-term goals, yet is agile enough to properly adapt to the short-term nuances that impact you and your company.

You can read more about reputation management costs here.

3. Will your SEO strategy address all of my online goals? 

Their approach

If your reputation management company promises everything under the sun while generalizing their approach, you should be very skeptical. The search landscape is vast. Each search query is unique and requires a specific strategy to achieve results. If your SEO company sells you on a one-size-fits-all approach to improve dozens of search queries, the SEO effort will be stretched too thin with too many focus areas. As a result, the impact in search will be negligible.

Our approach

We design an SEO strategy around a specific area of search you want to improve upon. While our work will raise the sea level across other areas of search, the greatest improvements will be around the keywords we specifically target.

The proper way to engage is to begin with a few focus areas that all stakeholders have agreed upon. This ensures that the effort is streamlined and properly supported by everyone involved. Then, we methodically seek out new opportunities to expand our relationship as we achieve results or as your strategy evolves. However, we never rush to expand a contract without benefit to you. Our team forecasts appropriate expansion timelines to maximize business impact while minimizing risk for you and your company.

4. When will you start writing content and building links?

Their approach

A firm that promises to begin working day 1 should raise flags with you. There is no way any company could conscientiously start executing on a strategy a few days into a campaign. If so, they’ll produce boilerplate copy and links on spam websites, and you should avoid them at all costs.

Our approach

We find that the onboarding process can take several weeks to complete. Before any execution begins, we take the necessary time to fully understand your brand, your online goals and your comfort level. We ask lots of questions and provide a lot of answers so that we are well aligned and are poised for success from the first day of execution. The strategy is designed for you, not anyone else. The level of thought put into it along with the output should both reflect that.

5. What web assets, content and links will you leverage? (What does “good” look like?)

Their approach

Ineffective, high-risk reputation management companies continue to use decades-old tricks like content farms, spam website networks and paid links to manipulate rankings and claim success with any short-term improvement they can point to. But any improvements are pure luck and unsustainable.

In fact, they’re actually ruining your online presence by associating you with low-quality websites that are jammed with incoherent text and forced mentions which don’t align with your brand voice. Dozens of websites use the same template and serve no purpose for you or the average user.

If an SEO company can’t produce several great examples of their work, or if something feels off, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface of their strategy is a host of other issues you need to avoid.

Our approach

We provide examples of the diverse range of high-quality, relevant web assets, content, and backlinks we plan to leverage on your behalf. Our team only chooses assets that you would likely hand pick to best represent yourself. Each website serves a specific purpose and the content often includes mixed-media collateral that caters to a specific audience and draws users in.

Every single website, article, and link that we leverage is natural to both Google and users. In other words, no keyword stuffing, no spun content, no sculpted links. We are very proud of our work and you ought to be proud of your online presence.

6. What do you need from us? What role do we play?

Their approach

Be wary of companies that say your involvement isn’t necessary, or they’ll work in the background. That would be so convenient for a company that performs high-risk SEO! Companies that push you outside the circle always have something to hide.

Our approach

Although we do the bulk of the heavy lifting, a real partnership requires involvement from both the SEO company and the customer. The more you participate, the more aligned the strategy and the results will be.

Enterprise-level projects are highly complex, and they require collaboration with you and your HR, marketing, content, product, business development or legal team members. This ensures we comply with your branding requirements, understand your audiences, and complement your marketing and PR initiatives.

There is also an inherent two-way educational component between SEO companies and their partners to deliver sustainable value. We go a step beyond encouraging participation and actually require an executive sponsor to be assigned from the customer team to ensure our partnership is aligned and the effort is prioritized properly.

Simply put, a comprehensive, forward-thinking SEO strategy founded on the proper principles requires your input. Importantly, you (the customer) can in fact be a bottleneck and hinder the success of the partnership unless you are committed to prioritizing the project and dedicating the proper resources to it internally.

Without prioritization, the collective effort can quickly become a waste of time and money.

7. Can I see what you’re doing?

This is as straightforward as it gets. If you can’t get full access to the work your ORM partner performs, you must not engage with them. Many SEO initiatives fail or become non-starters because the customer lacks the tools and insight to properly evaluate the SEO performance and ROI.

Their approach

If a reputation management company isn’t completely transparent, you simply cannot engage with them. If a firm limits the information they share with you, it should be a major red flag and your queue to move on.

Your SEO strategy must produce optimized web assets, content, and links for the pages you want Google to reward. These are all tangible assets that should be accessible to you at your convenience. 

Our approach

We provide you with real time updates involving critical data, regular email communication and comprehensive reports scheduled at consistent intervals. Historical activity is always referenceable and all activity is tied to coinciding results aligned with major objectives.

Reporting and accountability are major aspects of any partnership, and online reputation management is no exception. We pride ourselves on our unparalleled quality, and we’re happy to be completely transparent about our work.

8. Who is on the team? What is their background? Are they in-house?

SEO and reputation management work is founded on a few core principles: content development, website technical optimization, and online relationship building all working in harmony. Therefore, you should ask whether the team members assigned to your project have expertise in those disciplines and how they collaborate.

Their approach

Most reputation management firms do not have in-house expertise. They outsourcing project activity and produce third-rate deliverables that are disjointed because there is no collaboration across disciplines. Quality significantly deteriorates and the outsourced activity exposes you to additional security risks.

Our approach

For comparison purposes, we have a workforce of hundreds of full-time, in-house employees all with university degrees in dozens of relevant fields. Our team is proficient in SEO, data analysis, marketing, communications, writing, website programming, design and so much more. We assign a seasoned team of experts to each account consisting of an Executive Sponsor (yes, we assign one on our end too), an Account Manager, Project Manager, Content Writers, Technical SEOs and Strategic Outreach personnel and all of our strategies are supported by our proprietary technology and the work of our in-house engineers, programmers, designers and data scientists.

Our bench is deep and SEO centric. Of the hundreds of people we employ, there isn’t a single role or employee in the company that doesn’t exist to support the development and deployment of our SEO and reputation management strategy on behalf of our customers. It’s all we do, day-in and day-out.

By performing all of our work in-house, our strategy is much more cohesive than having different vendors perform varying aspects of the work, or hiring a company that outsources work to third parties. Each recommendation for technical SEO, content and outreach is thoughtful of the other and they all work in concert – making the strategy much more effective and successful. Knowing who is on your team should provide you with confidence that the recommendations are founded on real data science and executed on by experts in their respective fields.

Because we do things the right way and we hold ourselves to the highest standards, we successfully recruit top talent from all over the world to work-full time for us. We’re proud to introduce you to your team members, provide you with their credentials, and inform you of the specific work they do throughout the partnership.

9. What is the timeline for success and how sustainable is the approach?

The timeline to achieve results varies depending upon your goals as well as many internal and external factors. 

Their approach

Any SEO company that promises “overnight” results is placing bets on a high-risk strategy that likely falls outside of Google’s guidelines and doesn’t have your best interest in mind. Furthermore, an ORM firm that promises a truncated timeline indicates a sacrifice in quality, sustainability, and discretion, and often employs some degree of high-risk paid or dangerous spam tactics.

That company will likely show short-term gains that look good in a case study. But any progress is usually a false positive that will ultimately turn into losses when Google devalues or penalizes the effort. Companies employing short-sighted strategies like this exist just to collect a paycheck. When you ultimately grow frustrated with them and fire them, they will expectedly move on to the next company willing to pay them. These firms are opportunistic and never really intend on having a long-term partnership with you.

Our approach

Assuming we can only reach your goals through SEO efforts, you may start to see signs of improvement within a few weeks in deeper areas of search but proof of concept usually happens within the first few months of deploying a strategy. It can often take 12-18 months or longer to achieve an online objective with any sort of sustainability and there isn’t an “end date” for SEO, just realignment.

We are in for the long haul with our customers, and we dot our i’s and cross our t’s to ensure our effort strengthens our partnership. This includes developing a strategy that complies with Google’s guidelines and follows a natural timeline for execution.

Our approach is incremental and iterative, and each step parlays off of the previous one. We work as quickly and diligently as possible. However, by default, the timeline extends out over the course of several months and beyond. By performing SEO the correct way, we achieve desired results that you can trust, even if it takes a little more time.

The benefit of a high-quality, evergreen SEO strategy, unlike paid advertising and short-term SEO strategies, is that the results are much more sustainable even if you do need to stop working at your SEO (financial reasons or other, such as Covid-19). That does not mean the results will last forever. Again, like exercise, you need to continue working at SEO to achieve AND maintain desired results in perpetuity. However, when performed properly, the results are much more sustainable and provide much greater ROI and less cost per acquisition compared to paid advertising and short-term, spam SEO tactics.

We’ll be honest with you about the risks associated with rushing a timeline, and we may decide the project is a non-starter before agreeing to engage and sacrifice the integrity of our work. Knowing that, you should be prepared to walk away from a company that is comfortable promising an overhauled search landscape in as few as 180 days.

10. How do you protect your clients from risk?

This isn’t overly complicated. There is a right way to perform reputation management and a wrong way. SEO companies that have your best (including long-term) interest in mind will naturally avoid Google penalties or unwanted exposure online. Think of ORM like a security firm that takes preventative measures as opposed to just being reactionary in the wake of crises. Therefore, your SEO company should put forth a plan that is proactive, bathed in integrity and follows a natural timeline for execution. Quality, user experience, long-term goals and desired legacy should be at the forefront of the conversation.

Their approach

Consider the aforementioned high-risk firm that churns out auto-generated, low-quality content that serves no purpose. They buy or place overly-sculpted links in an attempt to manipulate Google (and you) just to make a quick buck so they certainly do not care about discretion.

They’re also cavalier with whom they communicate, what confidential information they share, and how they protect your sensitive data. Low-end firms also tend to brag about their relationships online to drum up more business. We’ve even seen some firms provide media interviews that directly name a customer and specify the problems they fixed on their behalf. It is absurd and hypocritical for a reputation management firm to expose their client alongside the strategies they employed on their behalf.

You ought to also be aware that most other ORM companies work with every customer willing to pay them — from the average person to a local business beset with Facebook complaints. As a result, they lean on cheap tactics for profitability at a low price point which often bleeds into their top tier clients.

Our approach

We do what’s right for the end user, so we’re always in compliance with Google’s ranking requirements and eliminate the possibility of our customers landing on the cover of WSJ for manipulative SEO practices. Furthermore, because we put your best interest first, we’re willing to firmly but respectfully say no to a client request if it could expose you to too much risk.

On the administrative side of the equation, each of our employees signs a strict confidentiality agreement. We also have mutual NDA’s with all of our customers, and we do not share unnecessary information with anyone that isn’t on a need-to-know basis. And because we never outsource work, your projects remain locked down within our ecosystem instead of on a web designer’s portfolio page.

We don’t take every deal that comes through the door. In fact, we decline 80% of the service requests we receive. We limit the number of customers we work with because we’re laser-focused on building strong partnerships with an exclusive list of enterprise customers and C-suite executives rather than spreading ourselves thin. Fewer customers translates to a superior and more personalized product, as well as greater customer satisfaction.

Finally, we take confidentiality very seriously. We don’t parade our network around and we rarely supply references. If a reference is needed, we always get consent first and prohibit any sensitive information from being shared. Here are just a few more ways we mitigate risk to protect our customers and avoid exposure..

We:

  • Have strict data retention policies
  • Encrypt hardware
  • Prohibit recordings
  • Utilize privacy screens where applicable
  • Limit any work performed in public settings and on public networks

In Summary

Most customers are overwhelmed by their current reputation issue, so they don’t think to ask the above critical questions during the sales process. Some of the largest and most sophisticated companies need these types of assurances, especially those in the tech space, and you should opt for online reputation management services that put forth a conscientious effort to secure data.

Contact us to discuss your solution.

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