Few prospects walk into a financial adviser's office without doing an online background check first, so firms need to have a game plan for tracking and reacting to negative internet posts about the business or its advisers.
Even someone who has been referred by a satisfied client can be turned off by a story reporting a disciplinary allegation, a sour review on WalletHub or Yelp, or even a blog from a disgruntled ex-employee, especially if the undesirable post lands on the first page of search results.
"So much of the worth of your business and the worth of your personal brand identity is tied up in your online reputation," said Sameer Somal, co-founder and chief financial officer of Blue Ocean Global Technology and advisory firm Blue Ocean Global Wealth.
Businesses risk losing as many as 22% of their potential customers when a negative article is found by someone considering buying their product or service, and if three negative articles come up in a search query, the loss potential increases to 59%, according to research by Go Fish Digital, an online reputation management firm.
The process of cleaning up a firm's image online can takes months and thousands of dollars in
technical and public relations help, depending on the number of negative links, the source of the
posts, whether the information lands on the first page of search results and other factors.
Experts warn that just publishing new positive content will not likely fix the issue on its own, partly because Google automatically pushes negative posts (which tends to get more clicks) above the rest. To move the negative items down, some of the references about your firm need to be from objective, authoritative sources, such as well-known newspapers or magazines.
Mr. Somal's tech firm recently helped a regional registered investment advisory firm repair its damaged image after it was cited by regulators for failing to disclose an item in their required filings and several negative reviews about their work culture were posted online from ex-employees and anonymous current employees. He declined to name the firm.
The RIA's owners sought help after several key clients had mentioned that they discovered the negative links when Googling the firm. The owners believed new client opportunities had been lost due to the postings.
"The negative comments were spreading on social media, and they had no in-house capabilities to tackle it," he said.
Blue Ocean Global Technology helped the firm turn around its tainted online presence by creating and building well-followed social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter that showed off the firm's expertise.
It also worked with the firm to publish or get mentions in about 75 different articles during the first year, including those by sources that Google considers more authoritative than those which had carried the negative comments.
Gradually, the negative links were pushed down and within about 18 months, the company saw a steady increase in regular traffic to their website and an increase in revenue, Mr. Somal said.
In cases where the posts are erroneous or proved false following publication, firms can ask the website hosting company to deindex the links by filing an abuse report, he said.
However, hosts can refuse and then it requires taking recourse with Google, typically after attaining a court order, thus adding legal costs to the overall bill.
The greatest step a firm can take to protect its reputation is to proactively build the business' name as experts in their domain. Therefore, fresh and relevant information illustrating a firm's capabilities will be tied to the firm and supersede negative links that are posted, said Bill Hartzer, a search engine and online reputation management consultant.
That typically includes having a firm Facebook page, a strong website with dynamic content, a LinkedIn profile and maybe a corporate LinkedIn profile, he said.
"If a company's done a good job of promoting their business it's more difficult to get something negative to show up when you search that firm or an adviser's name," he said.
(More: Edward Jones is winning the Google search war)
The cost of fixing a muddied reputation ranges from a couple thousand dollars a month for a few months' to up to tens of thousands of dollars a month for a year, Mr. Hartzer said.
Cleanup costs will be more in a major city because there are fewer searches of a firm or adviser done in smaller markets so it's easier to gain control over the search results, he said.
Here are a few of the circumstances that can lead to a negative link, according to these experts.
• Negative reviews of service posted by unhappy clients, or complaints filed on Ripoff Report.
• Disgruntled employees and former staff talking about issues at the firm on sites like Glassdoor.
• A person with the same name doing something criminal; their actions inadvertently get posted to an adviser's search results.
• Any public offense or violation reported by regulators or an industry group, such as being included on the list of individuals disciplined by The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.
• Someone registers the name of the firm or an adviser with a derogatory domain name, such as [company name]sucks.com.