Many private schools are realizing that prospective students and their parents have a more trusted information resource than their glossy brochures and college acceptance lists: they simply enter the school’s name in the Google search box.
Parents scrutinize everything about a prospective school – looking for long forgotten scandals, gossip, gaffes – any dirt they can find and search engines are the first place they start their inquest.
In my extensive practice as an online reputation management professional, I have seen cases when one simple article about an incident from ten years ago notoriously remains on the first page of Google search results. I watch my clients – understandably devastated – as they face questions from prospective parents incessantly curious about something that happened a long time ago, that was nothing more than a frivolous lawsuit or teacher gaffe that was later thrown out of court or got swallowed up by years of 24-hour news feeds.
There are a few common types of negative stories that hunt down highly selective tony private schools. Predominantly, I see articles posted in popular publications and local press that highlight any tiny incident – a misunderstanding, an upset angry parent, a politically incorrect teacher. The local press is all ears and sympathetic. Needless to say that the title of the article will likely be sensationalized, negative, twisted, exaggerated and often inaccurate; anything to capture reader views, clicks and interactions.
Controversial headlines sell and drive attention – so like all businesses, private schools are under constant scrutiny and under a magnifying glass.
Another common type of negative content that appears in Google searches are review sites. As Yelp is for restaurants; private schools have their own review platforms of choice: greatschools.org, schooldigger.com to name a few. School review sites are often ranked on the first page for a school’s name and only one negative review is a real eyesore even when balanced out by dozens of positive ones. These sites have built in forums and comments, but unfortunately these features often become venting outlets as they allow users to stay anonymous. Anonymous users have the freedom to rant and take liberties with language and hyperbole. For Private Schools, these kind of posts can be very bad for business.
A third, often-overlooked form of negative content is immature social media posts submitted by students anonymously. Just look up any prominent private school in UrbanDictionary.com – this site ranks well on search engines and, well.. Kids will be kids. Fake Twitter accounts are not uncommon – students create parody accounts for their schools because they can get away with it – twitter won’t take down a page if it clearly states that it’s a parody. This is not something happens only to private schools. Remember @CondeNastElevator? But because we are dealing with teenagers with time on their hands, these institutions are at higher risk.
What can private schools do to keep their Google presence as shiny and pristine as their glossy admission brochures? Unfortunately there is very little can be done to prevent bad press. Misunderstandings and incidents happen, there is no insurance policy for that. But the impact can be minimized with preventive measurements and proactive online branding.
Most private schools have a robust social media presence – Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Pinterest are platforms that at this point are considered mandatory for schools to be on. In addition to spreading good news, these platforms form a controlled protective “shield” of websites that hold their rank on the first page of Google results. This wall of protection offers a controlled message barrier that protects the schools reputation.
Some schools have more than one website – in addition to the official school site, there are often times separate microsites that cover topics like sports, college prep and extra curricular activities. I am often asked: ‘how many websites are too many?’ The answer is how many websites Google will ALLOW to be displayed in it’s highly sought after top 10 listings or first page. Typically, two-three websites is the limit for any one organization or brand. The rest are “reserved” for social media links, third party press links, and review sites.
I often describe the first page of Google as a plate that has to be filled with a proper mix of foods to create the perfect “palette”. You will need your website (or two), your social media links; expect greatschools.org or schoolddigger.com to find its way on the plate – and If there is any mention of the school in the local press Google robots will find it and index it as well as this listing will be “required” to complete the first page display.
My best advice is to make sure that all of the core bases are covered – launch multiple websites, make sure all social media profiles are aligned, and get your school in the spotlight for something parents and students are proud of. Focus on the good news – because bad news will go viral on its own.