Friday, August 5, 2011

How to Destroy a Company in 30 Clicks

This is a death plan for vindictive people going after shady companies. A case study you won’t find at Harvard and whose names and precise mechanisms have been shaded for obvious reasons. The story however, is quite devastating - an amazing intersection of SEO and crisis PR.

First, for those of you who are not quite sure what I do when I am not arranging iBreakfasts and iEvenings or helping start-ups to shape their plans and raise money – I am a marketing consultant. Back in the day, I wrote the first marketing column about Apple for MacWEEK (my mantra was: forget corporate, go creative as in “ad industry”) as well as ADWEEK and Advertising Age’s various publications.

While I advise many companies and execs on digital marketing, the assignments are often influenced by the topics of the iBreakfast. If we do mobile, I’ll get calls about mobile. When we do Social TV and I’ll be involved in media. So when Google’s new search algorithm became an iBreakfast topic, I got called about a ranking issue which was really, crisis PR expressed online.

A client was referred to me because a disgruntled webmaster had targeted his former employer for revenge and had more less put them on the road to destruction. By the time they contacted me, he had already forced them to change their name and reincorporate. But rather than evading him, he just went after their new company. His technique was so simple that it was laughable - but it also put the power of Google behind him. This wouldn’t work on Coca-Cola but for a small company or any company with credibility issues: bingo.

The company is in Multi-Level Marketing – not my favorite area – and they sell a product that protects you, let’s say, from environmental problems. We’ll call them ENVIRO-Y. There really is no way you can prove or disprove ENVIRO-Y’s efficacy. The problems they claim to solve are looming and obvious. Their supporting studies sound good but their sources are second rate if not dubious. So the entire sell depends on the credibility of their reps as well as the overall appearance of the company.

When they fired their webmaster with what looks like unreasonable prejudice, he decided to get even. Yes, ENVIRO-Y had reason to fire him but the cause (taking jobs on the side) seemed a little out of touch and in any case should have at least been done with a cordial but solid exit package.

So the ex-webmaster set up a vile website that slandered every aspect of the company, its founders and its operations. It used four letter words. It was an affront to any website anywhere. It literally stunk up the Internet with toilet language. It was anonymous.

However, it also came up first in search rankings relating to the ENVIRO-Y.

For about 6 months, ENVIRO-Y did nothing, thinking that the vileness of the site would be self-evident and be dismissed. But new clients whose credibility must be won, were easily spooked.

So ENVIRO-Y tried to flood the web with multiple relevant metatags and page variants drawn from their own website. Even then, savvy new customers were probably a little spooked when they saw repetitive websites pop in the search. Still, it seemed to work OK until the Farmer and Panda updates came along penalizing websites with “fake” or low quality pages. That also made the el stinko site rise to the top again. Genuine content!

In the meantime, the crisis sparked a fight between the founders who then split up and the company was reformed under a new name.

The ex-webmaster just incorporated ENVIRO-Y’s new name into his website and its tags and he went about his business I would imagine, with a laugh.

Now this is where it gets interesting because you are probably wondering why they didn’t try to shut him down via ICANN or his host or whatever.

The answer is that he didn’t rely on any of those institutions. He had used Google’s blogsite to set up the attack site and Google is a very firm believer in the First Amendment. They will only take down that site when presented with a libel judgment from the court in Santa Clara. Lawyers will know more about this than I, but I am guessing this takes time – even though this webmaster is highly unlikely to show up at the courthouse. Then again, he might show up with something on ENVIRO-Y that they really don’t want to air in court. Either way, he had Google on his side and they were in effect, paying for his attack site.

So ENVIRO-Y flooded the web with more sites – this time using their sales consultants to do the work but now they ran into three other issues.

1.     Social Media sites like Yahoo Answers had already begun fielding questions about the company and the attack on them. These are essentially unerasable and rank high in searches. The company, lacking a PR strategy and hoping to drown out the bad site never bothered to respond – leaving he questions hanging and in some case answered by people with their own agendas.
2.     The well-meaning consultants trying to help ENVIRO-Y were, shall we say, less than subtle and so they created sites along the lines of  “what lying, no-good company are they talking about – not us? Look how much money we’re making. Look what nice people we are. We can’t be bad. We’re not liar.” This seems to be right out of Richard Nixon’s playbook and worked just as badly. However, since they didn’t get the lesson, I’ll repeat it: in corporate PR you rarely fight fire with fire. If customers want to see a fight they’ll buy tickets to an ice hockey game. The IFC. Or they’ll just watch, but they won’t be customers.
3.     Google steps in again with their “Suggested Search” feature. Anytime you pop ENVIRO-Y into a search panel, the negative searches are suggested to you! And people look. How can they not? It looks more interesting than the company itself! So, once again they drive up the attack site’s ranking. To make matters worse, other companies that sell lead generation and other services to MultiLevel Marketers use these key words to boost their rankings and thereby reinforce the attack site’s rankings.

You are hearing this story because the story shows how delicate your image on the web can be. Obviously, if ENVIRO-Y were squeaky clean they would use this opportunity to take this whole issue head on - risky as that can be. I say that not only because they probably don’t have any honest answers, but even if they did - every new customer would feel obliged to cross-examine their consultants whenever they asked for business. That’s not fun. Net result - the company is seeing its salespeople run out on them and are facing a corporate tailspin from which they can't recover.

The moral of this story is be good and clean. If you can’t be – and here’s a shout out to Seth Godin – be careful how you treat your linchpins which, I might add, is a much more precarious job position than Seth would have you believe. Management has a much more conflicted view of linchpins in their midst and tend to resent their power. What usually happens is the Type A execs feel the need to throw their weight around from time to time, forgetting that disgruntled linchpins sure know how to make things fall apart when they’re not around.

As for consultants like myself who are hired to mop things up - the solution here is simple: hire us early, pay us well and listen up!

As for the 30 clicks - that's about how many keystrokes it takes to set up a Blogger account and start your own attack site.

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