Once upon a time, in the days before social media became ubiquitous, entering your own name into a Google search window was a guilty pleasure called “vanity surfing” or “ego searching”. Everyone did it, but no one talked about it.

Today, it’s a requirement for anyone who needs a job, a credit card, or even a potential mate. That’s because if you don’t check out your own online reputation, it’s a dead certainty that other people will. And if you don’t know what’s out there, you don’t have a prayer of correcting a problem that can ruin your reputation for years to come.

Any doubt about that evaporated last week when the national media jumped on what is euphemistically being called Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s Google problem. The problem has been in the making since 2003 when columnist Dan Savage took advantage of his knowledge of the workings of the web to redefine the candidate’s name in terms that are decidedly what the hip social media sites call “NSFW” (not safe for work).

So, what do you do if you run a Google search for your name (or your company’s) and find out that you have a Google problem of your own? First, consider the source and the context. Some websites will always rank higher in search engine result pages (SERPs) than others – a negative movie review in the New York Times will outrank a positive review on a local blog, and the giant sites like Yelp and Wikipedia will outrank most sites that the average business marketer controls.

This matters because the most common tactic used to restore a damaged online reputation is to develop so many positive online mentions that the negatives drop below the first few pages of search results. If the source of your Google problem is a website that you outrank (or can outrank with some solid SEO effort), look first to your own website for help. Use a consistent domain structure, focus on just a few carefully optimized pages, and publish fresh content regularly. Search Engine Land offers a practical guide on how to do this.

Another thing that anyone with an online reputation problem might do would be to optimize copy for both short and long-tailed keywords. That means that if a political candidate like Mr. Santorum wants to rank for the short term 2012 nominee, it would help his case to continually target the long-tail variation 2012 nominee for US president

Have you done everything you can do to protect your name and your company or product names? A good place to start is to check out American Express’s list of steps to take periodically to manage your online reputation.

Google estimates that several million of us Google ourselves every day. One problem for ordinary people with common names is that it can be hard to stand out. As Joe Kraus, Google’s director of product management told Time magazine back in 2009, “If your name happens to be Brian Jones, and you aren’t the deceased Rolling Stones guitarist, then you don’t exist.” At least not as far as the search engines can tell.

Another problem is that no matter what your name is, your online reputation can take a sudden, surprising hit from an online attack, name confusion, or even a social media gaffe that goes viral. I started doing my own annual reputation check-up three years ago, a few months after my reputation got trashed when I unintentionally got between two companies involved in a flame war.

It was six months after the problem began before I discovered it – and by that time, the damage was done. So the very first rule of online reputation management is to monitor your reputation constantly – you’ll want to take action as soon as a problem surfaces. Colorado social media marketing consultant Rebekah Radice recently posted a list of 10 free reputation monitoring tools  that’s worth checking out for individuals and small businesses.  Larger companies, especially those in regulated industries like insurance, financial services, healthcare, or pharmaceuticals will need a comprehensive social media CRM solution such as Socialware Insights.

The second rule of online reputation management is: don’t feed the trolls. Engaging an unhappy customer who posts something negative online is just good business – but engaging with a troll is downright dangerous. The existence of trolls is one of the major reasons that we all need to be careful what we say online — you just never know who is listening or how they will react. The truth is that most of the people you meet online are normal. But there are people out there who use the semi-anonymity of the Internet as an excuse to say and do things that (one hopes) they’d never do face-to-face.

If the negative information about you or your business comes from an unhappy client or customer – especially if you were at fault or the person doing the complaining has a big audience, it’s almost always a good idea to respond directly and publicly to the criticism. Here’s how to handle a bad online comment or review.

  1. Pay attention to the person’s grievance. Make sure you understand what they’re upset about, so there are no misunderstandings.
  2. Apologize. It’s never easy, but grace under pressure in a public apology will almost always go a long way toward restoring your reputation.
  3. Restate your company’s attention to customer service, and promise to provide excellent service and products.
  4. Consider offering a coupon, gift, or refund. (But be careful with this — you don’t want to create incentives for negative reviews.)
  5. In the case of an anonymous poster, ask them to contact you so that you can resolve the matter. (If an anonymous poster doesn’t respond to two requests that they contact you for a resolution, it pretty much seals the deal in most people’s minds – and if they do, be sure to post the resolution yourself: “GT contacted us, and I’m happy to report that she accepted our offer of a 50% off coupon on her next visit to make up for the rare problem she experienced the day our ice machine broke.”)
  6. Work with your staff (privately) to see if you can pre-empt future public complaints with a better behind-the-scenes customer relations program. Was there anything you could have done at the time of the problem that might have avoided a public discussion?
  7. Make it easy for satisfied customers to post positive reviews as part of an ongoing PR and social media campaign.

This brings us back to trolls. Whatever happens, don’t get caught in a public shaming session with a troll. Nothing you can say is going to make them happy – and no matter what you say, they’ll turn it into something negative. Trolls seem to have all the time in the world to complain and snipe and respond – but most of us don’t. So move on after a brief attempt to placate a troll.

These simple tips – monitoring your reputation, taking care not to get involved with a troll, and handling the occasional upset customer – will take care of the most common online reputation problems. But there’s always an exception. One of the first blog posts I wrote on my personal blog was called When Pedophiles and Search Engines Collide.  It’s the true story of a Dallas businessman who discovered that he shared a name with a pedophile only after he lost jobs and contracts. No amount of positive content would have pushed that story off the top of any Google search for his name, but the most basic tool of all helped turn things around.

He went to the publication that had written an award-winning story about the convicted pedophile, explained his situation, and asked them to make a two-character change in their story. He didn’t yell or threaten or make a scene, he simply asked nicely – one human being to another. And the editor – after pointing out that she had no obligation to change her truthful, factual story – did what he asked her to do. She added the convicted pedophile’s middle initial – which was different from the businessman’s – to the story and to the meta keyword.

It’s taking awhile, but making sure that he always uses his own middle initial in every context – Twitter, business cards, every online post – the honest citizen is slowly rebuilding his business and his reputation by creating a bit of distance between himself and the “other guy”. It allowed him to explain, and knowing what was there allowed him to open the conversation before someone drew the wrong conclusion from a search engine.

Photo credit:  Photographer Gage Skidmore made this photograph of Republican candidate Rick Santorum  (taken at a CPAC event in Orlando Florida on September 23, 2011) available on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.