PRs should own search reputation – but do we?

by Chris Lee

Search agencies often focus on helping their clients’ sites to rank highly in order to sell products or services, but what happens when you google a company and what you find is a wall of negativity? This is where PR comes in…

Here’s a challenge for you. Open a new browser in incognito mode and google a client’s name or – if you’re in-house – your own brand. Do you like what you find? Is it accurate? Are there negative stories? How many links belong to the brand?

In a recent PR Moment post, Andy Barr from 10 Yetis highlights the impact of negative SEO on corporate reputation. While negative SEO is a challenge to some organisations, the wider issue of negative search results needs to be tackled. 

Late last year, I worked on a major SEO research project with Grayling UK. We wanted to understand how negative Google research results impact FTSE 100 brands and how they differ according to sector.

The results were shocking. 

The vast majority – 80% - of FTSE 100 companies had negative content on page one of Google, focused chiefly on poor financial performance and confidence, poor products and services, and unethical corporate behaviour. Worryingly for brands, old news sticks around. We found that 39% of negative content was more than six months old and nearly a quarter (23%) was more than a year old.

Combining our findings with other research, we estimated that these negative Google search results lose FTSE 100 companies 16% of traffic - almost 15 million leads every month. These are potential customers, investors, employees and journalists who have googled the brand and been put off by what they have found.

While news sites presented the biggest threat, other prominent sites that can provide reputational damage include Glassdoor and, in particular, Wikipedia.

In short, the online reputation of many FTSE 100 companies – on search engines, at least – is out of control.

The opportunity for PR

In recent years, Google’s algorithm that the search giant uses when assessing how to rank websites has raised the weighting of inbound links as one of its 200+ signals. Brand mentions across the board is also a big factor, as is readability. So, the areas that PRs traditionally excel in – generating online coverage and creating engaging content – are the same qualities Google’s search bots regard above many other factors.

We have the expertise to influence these negative factors that appear on page one of Google. A little knowledge of how search algorithms work can go a long way.

This isn’t an SEO 101 post, this is a macro view on what PRs with the right skills can offer their clients to help them improve their search reputation.

Auditing: To find a solution, you first need to understand the problem. It all starts with an audit. What appears high on search – especially page one of Google – and why? How many of the ten organic spaces are ‘owned’ by the brand, such its website, social feeds etc.? This will also include a technical SEO audit. For example, Grayling found that just 15 of the FTSE 100 companies had ‘claimed’ their company on Google My Business to ensure that accurate information appears on their ‘knowledge panel’, which is the box of info you’ll see on the right-hand side when you google the brand. Just fifteen!

Strategy development:  Once you know the problem, it’s time to plot the solution, which will involve mix of content strategy, link building, positive news campaigns and social media. Changing search reputation doesn’t happen overnight, so the strategy must be a long-term project.

Measure and Pivot: It’s key to measure what matters and check results on a regular basis. Are you moving the needle? If not, why not? Are you earning enough diverse and authoritative inbound links?

Many of the search reputation challenges that brands face must be tackled at board level – they could be cultural, for example, if a poor Glassdoor rating is an issue. The answers to the questions of why a brand has negative results on page one can usually be found in the nature and content of those ranking links. 

PR can identify the issues and plot a path out. 

For PR agencies, there is a big opportunity to provide services in online reputation, but they must do it from a platform of knowledge. One cannot blag SEO. We’ve seen some agencies excel and many search agencies have hired experienced PRs to help them earn positive coverage and links. The two disciplines overlapped a long time ago but PR really should own reputation management.

So, some takeaways: learn how search engines work with SEO training for PR consultants, understand the challenges your brand or clients face, and tell them how you can turn things around for them.

PR needs to start owning online reputation.


Chris Lee is the CEO/Founder of content and training consultancy, Eight Moon Media.