Paul Mead, MD, VCCP Search
“Glass, china and reputation are easily cracked and never mended well”.

Benjamin Franklin’s words are particularly appropriate in these turbulent times, when it’s more important than ever for companies to consider every opportunity to protect and manage their hard won reputation and brand value.

But as Paul Mead writes, it is interesting to see that one of the largest media channels - online - is more often than not completely neglected from a communications point of view in times of strife. 

Yet search engines and Google, in particular, have such an enormous audience (over 28m people per month in the UK) and are such a part of our everyday lives that it’s astonishing how many brands can get this channel so badly wrong in times of crisis.

Over the last few weeks, for instance, Bradford and Bingley has rarely been out of the news as speculation reached fever pitch that the UK mortgage lender would become the next Northern Rock.

During this period of intensive media and market interest, the volume of searches for ‘Bradford & Bingley’ on Google has increased dramatically as clearly shown on the Google trends graph below.

B&B Google Trends graph

And here’s where the current marketing and communications set up of most major brands in the UK breaks down.

Search is considered by most CEOs and their cohorts as a direct response channel and is, therefore, looked after by the media agency.

Media agencies will always deny this but, with very few exceptions, paid search will be poorly understood and natural search even less so in these organisations.

This set up will also mean there will be little or no liaison or integration with the PR agency in order to develop a wider strategy for the search channel. 

An interesting question would be to consider what percentage of this huge increase in brand-related searches might be consumers looking to open a new account with Bradford & Bingley?

It’s impossible to say for sure but I will take a guess at very close tozero.

And what did concerned shareholders or worried customers of the bank see when they reacted to the news flow and Googled ‘Bradford & Bingley’ to find out what was going on?

Well they did see Bradford & Bingley at the top of the paid search and natural search listings, which is one thing at least.

However, more worrying was the site’s prominent message to all the stakeholders:

“Internet Saver 6.51% p.a. gross/AER. Open today with £1.”

Mmmm. Thanks but I think I’ll leave that one.

I might be able to open an account today, but before nationalisation most consumers would have been more concerned about whether the bank would be around for much longer than the 24 hours required to open an account.

A look at the Google search results page shows no attempt to understand what people are looking for and regain some brand equity by delivering the right message at the right time – or to address the concerns posed by an Adwords ad run by The Telegraph to target worried consumers.

I am picking on Bradford & Bingley here, but it was the same with Northern Rock.

And it’s the same today with Alitalia, with MFI, with JD Sports and probably with most of the businesses at the centre of credit crunch-related speculation today.

Online is the modern channel of choice for information and search engines are most people’s starting point in that journey.

The search engine results page should therefore be considered as the frontline in modern communications and brands need to think more seriously about their ‘search relations’ programme.

There are two distinct roles which a search engine plays in the communication mix – assessing influence and facilitating reaction.

When rumours start or content is created about a brand on a forum, message board, social media site or a blog, the search engine algorithms are the first line in assessing the influence and authority of that content.

The algorithms will look at a long list of subtle factors to make this assessment, from the technical construction of the page to the number and ‘quality’ of links to it from third party sites.

Any content about a business, whether it’s positive or negative, will live or die by whether or not it gets ranked by Google for the brand keywords.

If it doesn’t, then a communications director won’t be losing any sleep over it, no matter how malicious or damaging.

For the brand is back in the safe world of 99% of all blogs – having a readership of one.

Search engines are the wind that fans the flames of any bush fire around a brand.

Without them, bad news won’t get far, but with a prominent ranking anything is possible.

If you were to Google ‘Land Rover Discovery’ then a blog called appears just under the brand’s own website.

It’s full of horror stories from vehicle owners and will have stopped many a purchase cycle dead in its tracks. 

There are many other examples, too numerous to list here, but the point is that it has never been easier for third parties to have their say about a business and for this point of view, rightly or wrongly, to reach a large audience via search engines and influence perceptions of a brand.

The second role that search engines fulfil is to facilitate reaction.

Search engines are the first port of call for any stakeholders who are reacting to a breaking news story and whether they be journalists, shareholders or consumers, they’re programmed these days ‘to Google it’ and  influenced by what they see on that first page of results.

Trying to sell something when the world seems to be falling in is not the most appropriate message to deliver but that’s often the end result due to the current lack of communications and brand understanding going into the search strategy of many large corporations.

As the global financial crisis unfolds, brands need to get up to speed quickly with this new world order and to integrate their media, communications and search operations more effectively.

Search relations will soon become an accepted part of a brand’s communications strategy and getting it right will go along way towards ensuring there are fewer cracks to repair in a brand’s hard won reputation.

Paul Mead is the Managing Director of

VCCP Search