We all know the power of having a positive online reputation, right? A comprehensive grasp on your online reputation means having complete control over what ranks for your brand name, what shows up in Autocomplete, what people are saying on social media, what your Wikipedia page says about you or your company, and on and on. While there are many places where you absolutely have to keep track of your reputation, all roads lead back to those 10 blue links on search result pages. If the search results for your brand name are poor, almost nothing else matters until that is fixed.

One of the cornerstones of managing the search results for your brand is the promotion of positive articles about your company. For example, if USA Today writes up a great article about your organization, you don’t want that to linger on page 2 where no one will see it when people search your company name. Rather, you want that to be front-and-center, maybe right after your own website and social profiles.

So, as good reputation management professionals, we perform search engine optimization efforts to help those articles rank higher. This means pointing links and social signals at those positive articles to get them to climb in Google’s rankings.

Not So fast, Though! Matt Cutts Is On To Us

For those who don’t know, Matt Cutts is the public face and spokesperson for the Google Search algorithm (technically the head of the Google web spam team).

In a recent Google Webmaster Tools video, Matt Cutts makes specific mention of reputation management agencies and calls out the activity of linking to positive articles about people and companies.

The context here is that Cutts’ is offering webmasters information on why they might have received a notification of unnatural links to their website and warns them about the potential for a manual penalty. You’ll find the key points for our discussion at 3:47 and 8:09 in the video below.

3:47 Another one we’ve seen is, well suppose you were a newspaper, and you’ve written something relatively nice about somebody. And then it turns out that he’s embezzled or that he’s been involved in real estate scam, or for whatever reason, he is using a reputation management firm. So the reputation management firm may be trying to push up the positive articles on a newspaper or on a new website or something like that.

Our primary purpose is to protect users. We haven’t been worried as much with, ‘ok, is this a link that was reputation management? So someone else was trying to push this article up’ or ‘is this someone who is doing paid link spam?’ ”We’ve just said, ‘ok, we don’t want these types of links to count.’

And later in the video, he describes how it is just the value of the links that might be taken away, not necessarily a penalty placed on the site:

8:09 As we’ve gotten more sophisticated, we’re more likely to say ‘perhaps individual links don’t count’. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If a reputation management firm is pointing to one article on your site, that is not the end of the world.

Reading Between the Lines – The Lessons

A friend at church once told me that the measure of a good preacher is not in how many versus he can find to support a single point, but rather in how many points he can draw out of a single verse. So, I’m going to give that approach a test, as I believe that there are several lessons to be culled out of some seemingly straightforward statements from Cutts.

Lesson #1 – The Algorithm Adjusts for ORM Activities

I’ve never heard the folks at Google specifically mention reputation management in the context of algorithm adjustments. While I’m not naive enough to think that our industry has completely dodged the scrutiny of the Ph.Ds at Google, we had never had that public confirmation and thus always thought that maybe we weren’t a huge priority. However, the references in this video demonstrate that our intentions are certainly accounted for in the algorithm and our methods are acknowledged by those at Google.

Lesson #2 – We Better Build Quality Links

Google doesn’t like to be manipulated. They don’t want people to help push articles up or down in the search results. And, because of this, they implement updates to their algorithm to devalue any actions that encourage this type of movement. In the short term, it can still work to use massive amounts of low quality links to move content around in the search results. However, those actions don’t come without a downside – primarily that the changes tend to last only a few days to several weeks. Repairing your reputation is a long-term proposition, and short-term results don’t accomplish much on an Internet that never forgets.

Lesson #3 – There is Likely More to Come

Cutts doesn’t outright say this, but it seems that every algorithm update builds upon itself, so there is no reason to believe that Google would stop at just discounting backlinks. What if another cornerstone of our industry was taken away? For example, we all encourage individuals and companies to be active on social media. By being active on social media, clients can get their social profiles like Twitter and Facebook to rank highly for their names in Google. But what if Twitter/Facebook/etc. were moved to the right sidebar and out of the 10 results? Take a look at the picture below:

Google, Twitter, and Pinterest were all on page 1 for ‘Taco Bell’. Now that they are in the sidebar, that is 3 more positions on Page 1 that have opened up that could get filled with any other content, negative or positive. Is it likely this will happen? Probably not, but who knows. What I’m saying is that we need to future-proof our efforts. Don’t just act on what Google does today, but what they appear to be working towards.

Lesson #4 – Don’t Believe Blindly

While all of this talk would have us believe that Google has cracked the code on link spam and it will no longer work, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As my colleague Dan Hinckley pointed out a few days ago, one need look no further than the search results for ‘online reputation management’ to see some guys with a very questionable link profile ranking exceedingly well. Although Google is getting better at devaluing spam, it is still a game of whack-a-mole at this point.

So there’s a good 4-point sermon for you. SEO practitioners all take heed when Matt Cutts makes a proclamation, however I’ve noticed that ORM practitioners don’t jump nearly as high after hearing the same points. This clip is a nice reminder that our work is not overlooked, and that we are specifically accounted for by the PhDs in the Googleplex.