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Reputation Management “Sucks”: Domains, Wikileaks, BofA & Fear

Friday, January 07, 2011
Investor RelationsOnline Marketing

eric_weidner_sm01It sounds like a bad joke, but Bank of America bought domains that contain their CEO’s name and the words “blows” and “sucks.” And they didn’t buy these domains because they wanted to. They bought them because they HAD TO.

A little background: In December 2010, Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, announced he has information that “could take down a bank or two.” Based on additional conversations and interviews, many people believe one of these is Bank of America.

Whether BofA did something awful, whether BofA CEO Brian Moynihan did something awful, whether Wikileaks has real dirt on them or whether this is all a tempest in a teapot, BofA is doing the best it can to maintain its online reputation. And that means owning the negative keywords and domains.

Negative Content and Reality

Companies that get a lot of media attention, or aggressively promote themselves and their products online, may get some negative content thrown at them. The negative content could be something as simple as replies to news articles or blog posts, or negative product reviews, to something as elaborate as entire websites, bulletin boards or blogs that are dedicated to negative content about the company. The content could be accurate, crazy, or deliberately malicious and intended to cause a company harm. Perhaps the content is created by real customers who have legitimate complaints, or by sleazy short-sellers who want to make a quick buck on a small-cap stock. And any bad press just adds fuel to the fire.

BofA learned this lesson the hard way – they already feel the heat from http://www.bankofamericasucks.com (and others), and they aren’t alone. Just ask the investor relations team of many small-cap, publicly traded companies about how they’re treated on the bulletin boards!

Online Reputation Management

Whatever the causes, it is nearly impossible to stop negative content, so companies simply have to deal with it as best they can. Which brings us to the particular flavor of search engine optimization called “online reputation management” – in other words, “what people are saying about us online.”

And for online reputation management, often the best defense is a good offense. This is why BofA had to buy BrianMoynihanBlows.com, BrianMoynihanSucks.com, BrianTMoynihanBlows.com, BrianTMoynihanSucks.com and the .net and .org variations – AND the same types of domains for many of their top executives. Here’s why:

First, there’s a good chance that someone else would have bought the domains if BofA hadn’t. The combination of a company name with the word “sucks” in a domain has become a sort of web custom, and some really negative press could have been the catalyst that motivated someone outside of BofA to buy the domains and start a negative bullet board, website or blog. They’re really trying to reduce the potential embarrassment factor as much as possible.

This tactic has its limitations: you can only buy so many domains with the targeted keywords. After all, there are many, many variations that someone could create (brianmoynihanREALLYsucks.com, for example). But “sucks” and “blows” seem to be the most critical.

BofA’s second reason is for SEO purposes. If someone searches for the words “brian moynihan sucks,” BofA wants Google’s results to show links to empty web pages or some sort of BofA content, or to at least push the really bad stuff lower in the results. BofA wants to own domains that contain these keywords because they might be able to get better organic search engine rankings if their page URLs contain the targeted keywords, which in this case would be “brian moynihan sucks.” Ultimately, they’re trying their best to exert some control over what content people get when they search using negative keywords.

You can imagine how tricky and weird the whole business of online reputation management can get. For example, the best way for BofA to “own” the keywords “brian moynihan sucks” would be to create (or have a surrogate create) a bunch of pages that contain those keywords (perhaps all their pages would contain this HTML:<h1>Does Brian Moynihan suck? Not so much.</h1>), and then get a bunch of other websites to link to those pages using the keywords inside the link text. This tactic worked great for “miserable failure” many years ago, but for BofA … not so much.

What’s all the Fuss About?

On a conspiracy-theory-type note, BofA’s real goals could have been to (a) generate a bunch of news around a trivial issue (buying weird domains) so everyone is sick of the entire story before it even appears on Wikileaks, or (b) to get the media (and me) to help them “own” the negative keywords by having the keywords appear inside high-ranking news sites rather than really negative sites (in all honesty, blog.workbox.com is not a highly-ranked news site – just a marketing site for a web consulting, design and development business – but I can dream). If these were their goals, I think they may have backfired. Right now, whether true or not, everybody assumes BofA is guilty of some misdeed and are awaiting Wikileaks to confirm it.

Alternatively, perhaps the threat of Wikileaks just got BofA’s risk management team to do something they had been considering for some time, and maybe we’ll see other companies start taking negative keyword domains more seriously. Perhaps corporate insurance, liability or securities regulations are involved as well.

It’s Hard to Keep Secrets and Hide Mistakes

Ultimately, the most important lesson to come out of Wikileaks’ recent attention is this: it is very hard to keep a secret or hide a mistake these days. Honest mistakes are easier to handle because a company can own up to them, try to correct them, hope the fallout isn’t too bad and that the negative attention will go away. And effective online reputation management can help speed the process of making negative content lose prominence.

Hiding misdeeds is another matter, and this is what companies and governments should really fear. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Conscience and cowardice are really the same things. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.” “Wikileaks” might be another trade-name of the firm, and perhaps some executives or politicians could use a little more “conscience/cowardice.”

Theorizing and moralizing aside, no matter the outcome of Wikileaks’ bank drama, effective or ineffective online reputation management can have a real impact on a company’s stock valuation, sales, marketing and employees. And BofA is probably doing the best it can in these circumstances. Besides, I’m a believer: I just bought workboxsucks.com, workboxblows.com and all the other important TLDs. But, if someone wants to buy workboxreallysucks.com, feel free.

I’d rather spend the money to see Tron.

Have a happy new year!

Eric Weidner