White Hat Optimization to Protect Your Brand's Image on the Web

In the world of search engine optimizers and the brands that rely on their expertise, the debate continues as to what constitutes “white hat” and “black hat” search engine optimization, with lots of activity in the “gray hat” area in between.

In case you’re unfamiliar with this debate and to keep it simple, white hat optimization tends to concentrate on increasing keyword density on-site and in in-bound link text to attract search engines for mission-critical terms.

White hat optimizers like to point out that they follow the rules as posted by Google, Yahoo and the other search engines for what constitutes fair play. Black hat optimizers tend to leverage programming techniques, including cloaking and redirects, and make no bones about their perspective, which is that “the rules are that there are no rules.” And as with every great debate, there’s the gray area.

Following this same polarization of what constitutes “good” optimization is a newer form of search engine marketing focused on protecting your brand's image.

Your brand in crisis — bad news hits the Web. Image protection is most frequently associated with public relations crisis management. It is being used more and more when a brand finds its reputation tarnished, when people using search engines enter the brand name and get links to negative stories about the brand on the Web.

Let’s use a fictitious example. A news story goes out that a child was injured playing with a new, popular action figure. Other media pick up the story. The next thing you know, the story is all over the Web: on major newspaper sites, on television station sites, it’s reprinted as transcripts from radio discussions and it’s on all kinds of blogs as people react to the news.

This is good. The media are doing their job. People are sharing information. The search engines find the stories and index them.

And then it is discovered that the child wasn’t injured by the action figure. He was hurt by another object in the room.

Well, as is often the case in real life, that story is given very little, if any, coverage. Nobody writes the corrected news story. Nobody is talking about it on the blogs. It’s worse than old news — it’s no news at all, which means there’s nothing corrective for the search engines to index.

And so the makers of the action figure are doomed to see those negative — and now inaccurate — stories about their action figure every time someone searches on their product because the search engines don’t have anything with which to replace that indexed content.

Unless the marketers employ image protection.

Image protection to the rescue. With image protection techniques, smart marketers seek to correct outdated, inaccurate information by enlisting other Web sites to carry the updated information. Unlike SEO, through which sites are competing with each other for top rankings in the search engines’ natural listings, with image protection, marketers are encouraging other sites to carry their message and generate top rankings for that term in the process. This benefits both the publishing site and the marketer with traffic.

Here’s how white hat image protection works, continuing with the toy marketer example.

The toy marketer would develop several different types of articles and press releases about its product, optimizing the content so its product name (and any negative terms associated with the injury) has appropriate keyword density in each piece.

The company then would conduct a campaign to get the content placed on other sites by posting to press release wires, approaching Webmasters whose target audiences would benefit from the corrected content and generally spreading the word that its product is safe.

As other sites pick up this content, search engines will start finding and indexing the content. Over several weeks, the results of the image protection campaign most likely will begin to take hold as the newer, optimized content replaces the older content — which, remember, wasn’t optimized, as it was just showing up because there was nothing (or not enough) to counteract it.

What about blogs? Though it’s possible to post to blogs to try to rectify a negative situation, one can easily see the slide into the gray area in doing this. That’s because many blogs pride themselves on being marketing-free environments, untainted by marketers’ messages. If the toy manufacturer could persuade the blog publishers to take up the cause to help the toy regain its good name, well, that’s white hat. Trying to spam blogs with “objective” news items that are nothing short of plants is another story.

Recently, a story accusing CNN of spamming blogs was making the rounds on the Internet. Here’s a place to plug in and gather more information; regardless of whether you think CNN spammed or not, the opinions about this type of activity are a good read: http://www.searchenginejournal.com/index.php?p=1655. Just as with traditional public relations or media relations projects, working with journalists rather than trying to “trick” them is always a better row to hoe.

How do you know if you need image protection? If you enter your company or brand name as a search query on the major search engines and you receive negative stories that you believe would work against your marketing programs, you may want to consider image protection.

But the first question you should ask yourself in these situations is whether the stories being retrieved are current and accurate. If they’re not, image protection is a good route to consider. If the negative listings are reflecting reality, you’ll have more success correcting the reality than trying to bury it with image protection, as it will be difficult to persuade other sites to work with you if what you’re trying to bury is truly news and of interest to searchers.

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