From SEO firms claiming to be reputation companies to traditional PR firms and reputation specialists, online reputation companies come in all shapes. This article is intended to help you sort through the differences and find the right firm for your needs.
Most firms that advertise themselves as reputation companies fall into this area. Search engine marketing is certainly a subset of ORM and one of the tools professionals use, but it is only about half of what makes a reputation management firm "real".
There are also different levels of ORM company.
You've probably heard their radio ads or seen them on TV. These are the companies that sell "reputation packages" and showcase low-seeming prices. They can offer cheap reputation management because they tend to (but don't always) sell the same one-size-fits-all solution to everyone.
Automation means these companies can essentially press a button and have content published to a large number of blogs they control almost instantly. The problem with automation is that it creates an easily recognized pattern search engines quickly see. This causes search engines like Google to discount the sites as being unimportant and irrelevant.
Another issue is that most of the sites tend to be part of a "private blog network". Private blog networks are very bad things to search engines as they are designed to blatantly manipulate seach results without providing better content. Google updates have nearly eliminated the ability for reputation companies to use blog networks.
In one well-known case, a company called Brand.com relied on this method. One day Google devalued their entire network, so all of the web pages they had built using their automated network became worthless. The search results they had suppressed for their clients shot back to their former positions in search results. One thing led to another and the company went out of business.
Public relations firms have been engaging in one kind of reputation management or another for a long time. PR companies tend to have strong journalist relationships that can often be leveraged for content placement. Reputation management companies often use PR companies for public outreach because technical reputation management tends to live "behind the scenes".
Conversely, PR companies often use specialized reputation companies like Reputation X in a white label capacity. This is because online reputation companies specialize in only one thing, whereas PR companies generalize.
We use public relations companies for public outreach, while we stay behind the scenes. PR companies use Reputation X to manage their reputation clients, then add a markup to our services. The relationship works well for both parties.
Reputation X is a hands-on firm. Hands-on reputation experts use some automation, but the vast majority of the work is done by hand and is based on heavy reputation and sentiment research. Each client is examined individually, no packages are used because each project is entirely different. We may be biased, but we believe the only way to do "real" reputation management is through the hands-on approach.
There's still another variety of reputation management company, one that only improves online reviews. Most review improvement solutions involve providing an intermediary system between new customers and their invoices. They're often software systems that may be connected to the company invoice system. When a customer does business with you, the system sends them an email or to a web page where they rate your business. If they rate it well, they are shuffled off to Yelp or some other review site. If they rate it badly, the business is alerted and the problem is solved (hopefully). These systems are usually very inexpensive and billed on a monthly basis.
Another form of online review management company uses a human outreach system. Real people call your clients, ask them about their experience, and essentially do the same thing the automated system above does. One of the review management companies we've interacted with uses a group of "old ladies with sweet voices" to actually telephone customers. They say it works well for turning lemons into review lemonade.