A Conversation with John Battelle

The search guru talks about the necessity of using "white-hat" tactics to manage your company's reputation online

Anyone with a computer and Internet access can punch your company's name into Google and find just about anything written about it on the Web in seconds. Few people can articulate the implications of this for businesses as well as John Battelle, author of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture and writer of the popular Searchblog.

A co-founder of Wired and the defunct Industry Standard magazine, Battelle now runs the online ad network Federated Media. He spoke with BusinessWeek's John Tozzi about what search and online reputation management services mean for small companies. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

For a small company, to what extent does your first page of Google results define your company or your brand?

It's all relative to each business and the category they're in, but I think it can be said that a significant amount of the encounters that any potential customer or current customer has with your brand has very little to do with you getting them to think about you, but rather them coming across you through one way or another via search.… Whatever the results are is what they'll think of you, and whether or not that's fair is kind of beside the point. It's just true…

But it turns out that often times complaints are amplified by the Web and by search, [because] people don't go out of their way to say something nice, but they do like to vent.

Is it even more important for small companies that may not already have a presence in consumers' minds?

In whatever it is that you represent, if you're very local, or regional, or if you've built a great small business in a particular niche, you need to understand what the ecosystem is around that niche online, and then to be part of that ecosystem, to join it.… Understanding where that specific group of people hangs out—what they do online, how they might encounter you— and then making sure you have a presence there that is robust … will help ensure that when people do find your brand through the serendipity of search, they'll find it in a context that's positive, because you‘re engaged. If you're not engaged, you're letting other people define who you are.

Can you talk a little bit about these online reputation management companies that are offering to do this for you?

I have to use a caveat, as I haven't really deeply studied them. But my recommendation to anyone who's considering working with them is that they be very careful to make sure that they're employing what are known as "white hat" tactics. Because you will be painted with the same brush as the company you keep, and if you work with a company that's doing things that are spammy, creating farms of links, trying to push various terms related to your business up the ranks of search engines' organic results, and if Google (GOOG) or Yahoo! (YHOO) determine that their tactics are not aboveboard, then your brand will be put in the penalty box along with theirs. …

I don't think there's any harm in working with a third-party agency to build your search equity. On the other hand, you've got to make sure you're doing it in a transparent way with high integrity.

Can people trust search if there are companies out there manipulating what's going on in the results beyond standard, aboveboard SEO [search engine optimization]?

Yeah, I think that generally they can, but there's always going to be cases where it's proven that they can't. Search isn't perfect and never will be, I don't think, but it gets better all the time. It also gets harder all the time.

What do you think of the business model of companies in this reputation management space?

I think that there's a business there. I want to be clear. People [promoting Web sites] aren't necessarily going to understand the space well enough to do the right things to ensure that they are well-positioned and putting their best foot forward, so to speak. But it's also an area where things can be done that are gray and in the margin, and so it's just really important to understand [that] you have to be transparent, you have to be honest. There's a difference between paying someone to post something who isn't transparent about it, and sponsoring and underwriting, which is something that big brands do all the time. It's just about transparency and integrity and not trying to fool someone.

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