Most businesses with an active social media presence dream of viral posts that deliver explosive follower counts and booming revenue growth. But viral visibility isn’t always positive. In fact, even the largest companies in the world get caught off guard by preventable gaffes that taint their online reputations for years.
But don’t let that scare you away from growing your business’s social media presence. While the next few paragraphs may seem frightening, they’ll arm you with the information necessary to safeguard your brand from common missteps. Let’s look at why mistakes go viral, exactly what makes them stick around, and how to safeguard your reputation.
Why Social Media Gaffes Go Viral
In my first article for Maximize Social Business, I clearly stated that you should not delete anything on social media…but there is an escape clause to that argument. While you shouldn’t delete follower complaints—unless they are hate speech—it is acceptable to remove your own posts without fear of backlash. This is especially true if you’ve posted something hurtful, or something was shared by an unauthorized user.
But don’t assume that content has been banished from the internet just because you’ve deleted it from your profile. If even one person took a screenshot of your post before it was erased (and they probably will), it could become a viral meme. This is especially true if it falls into one of these categories:
- Hilarious blunders: McDonald’s “Black Friday **** Need copy and link****” post
- Irony: The Department of Education tweeting back-to-back spelling errors
- Offensive content: The Patriots auto-tweeted a racial slur after reaching 1 million followers
People love to share emotionally-charged content that makes them laugh out loud, shake their head or spit in anger. So if your post fits these criteria, you could be in trouble. While the media will eventually move on, the internet never forgets. To understand how a single tweet becomes immortalized, we’ll need to take a peek under Google’s hood.
How Google Works (Warning: Technical Jargon)
A recent round of headlines questioned whether Google is biased, but it’s important to note that search engines don’t play favorites. Search algorithms are intentionally programmed to be as neutral as possible when delivering the most relevant and trustworthy information to users.
In order to do this, Google’s algorithm must sift through trillions of web documents and learn what each article, image, and video is about. This learning process is what helps Google understand what cats are so you’ll be satisfied with the results if you search for “funny cat videos.”
It’s not just about cats, though. Google’s algorithm also has the ability to learn when unrelated topics suddenly become intertwined. For example, a search for “President of the United States” returns an image of Donald Trump. Nobody has to program this information into Google. It learns to make these connections on its own.
Unfortunately, this same process can cause your business to become associated with something negative. If you run an image search for the word “idiot”, the search results are also dominated by photos of Donald Trump—which is why the search giant was accused of bias by the current administration. But Google’s algorithm doesn’t believe Donald Trump is an idiot. These images are appearing for a completely different reason: search density.
When several topics are constantly being mentioned together on the same webpage across millions of sites, algorithms determine that they might be related. The greater the percentage of co-occurring mentions, the stronger the correlation. And this connection is further reinforced when people click on the provided results.
Eventually, Google begins to suggest related searches and autocomplete results that lead people to this negative content. This is the very foundation of search engine reputation management, but there’s much more happening behind the search engine curtain.
Other ranking signals
Beyond co-occurrence and search density, Google also uses hundreds of other factors to determine which content to rank for search queries. Here are just a few:
- E.A.T. — This Google buzzword is an acronym that refers to expertise, authority, and trust. If an article is written by an expert on a trusted and authoritative news site, such as NPR, the content will likely rank favorably in search results.
- Backlinks — Pages that receive lots of links from trusted sources will also get a rankings boost. This NPR article about McDonald’s Trump tweet got over 200 links.
- Anchor Text — The actual words you click when visiting a link contain valuable information for search engines. If a large percentage of link anchor text uses the phrase “McDonald’s tweet”, and they all link to one specific Twitter post, Google will think all users want to see this when searching that phrase.
- Image Alt Text — When an image is uploaded to a webpage, publishers may tag the code with text that describes the image. If many images are tagged with the same phrase, “McDonald’s tweet,” in the alt text, Google will begin to associate these images with that phrase.
Viral Gaffes that Broke the Internet
Now that we’ve covered why gaffes go viral and why they remain entrenched in your search results, let’s look at some specific examples of this phenomenon in the wild.
Equifax Goes Phishing
After the Equifax data breach, the credit bureau accidentally tweeted the link to a phishing site designed to steal customer data rather than the actual link to their product enrollment site. To add insult to injury, Equifax tweeted the link to the spam site not once, but Equifax tweeted the link to the spam site not once, but three times when potential victims asked the company for assistance on Twitter.
Google returns approximately 425,000 results for the search “Equifax tweet,” and 13 of the top 20 results discuss their failed tweet (despite the company having published over 2,800 tweets). The top sites listed are all trusted news websites, including Mashable, CNN, NY Times, and Gizmodo. A quick scan of the search results reveals that nearly every one of these articles was written within two days of the accursed tweet (September 20, 2017). So even though it’s been nearly 14 months, Equifax can’t seem to bury this one.
Department of Education Fails Spelling (Twice)
The U.S. Department of Education has had to deal with a heap of bad press over the appointment of Betsy DeVos. Things got significantly worse for the government office’s official Twitter account when it misspelled the surname of civil rights activist as: “W.E.B. DeBois” (instead of Du Bois).
By midday, the department had posted a new tweet with the correct spelling and an apology, “Post updated — our deepest apologizes for the earlier typo.” Unfortunately, what was initially an ironically embarrassing tweet became an immediate viral meme over the second spelling error…in a tweet apologizing for a spelling error…by the Department of Education.
The story was featured or syndicated across thousands of websites, including some incredibly trusted and influential news publishers. The biggest ones were the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the NY times. Google returns 244,000 results for the query, “department of education misspelled tweet.”
Not only did this face-palming tweet make headlines by itself, but it’s been mentioned in countless other articles from the biggest social media fails to government spelling and grammar fumbles like this one. Like the previous example, it was the repetition of the error that seems to have fanned the viral flames of this failure.
McDonald’s Gets Hacked
McDonald’s Twitter account is no stranger to sassy statements and mistakes (like the infamous Black Friday placeholder tweet). But when the brand’s official account was allegedly hacked and posted a rant against President Donald Trump, the internet nearly peed it’s pants laughing.
Bolstered by the polarized political landscape of the country, the social gaffe was picked up by nearly every major news network, talk show and online publisher. But it gets worse. Screenshots of the infamous insult became so prolific that an image search for “McDonalds tweet” still returns an endless wall of this singular post 18 months later. And because there are so many images related to the search, Google also displays them in an image carousel within the regular web results.
As if all that wasn’t enough, even Google autocomplete seems hell-bent on keeping this tweet alive. While typing “mcdonalds twitter”, Google suggests several searches that remind us of the incident.
Of course, this isn’t because Google prefers Burger King or hates Donald Trump, it has to do with content density, search term popularity, user engagement, backlinks, trust, image alt text and many other things.
What can you do about it?
Now that the scary stuff is out of the way, let’s talk about how you can protect your brand from these avoidable fails.
Avoid mistakes in the first place
Double-check everything: It seems silly to mention this as a solution, but I can’t count the number of Twitter posts that went viral because of preventable mistakes. Yes, I’m talking to you Red Cross employee who posted about #gettngslizzerd on the official Red Cross Twitter account instead of your personal profile.
Invest in better security: While you may be able to pawn off mistakes on being hacked, you’ll also open yourself up to questions about data security. Prevent unauthorized access to your profiles by limiting password access, changing them often, and removing credentials BEFORE you fire your social media manager. Here’s why.
There is no right side in politics: Whether you feel the need to attack or defend a new policy, don’t. There’s no way to win this battle with your business’s social media account. It’s more likely that you’ll alienate existing customers than attract new ones, especially in today’s political landscape.
Admit to mistakes: It’s fine to delete offensive content or posts published in error. However, you should still apologize to your followers for the mistake, and inform them that you’ve removed or edited the content. Deleting the post will save you from future harm, but admitting you made an error will repair potentially damaged relationships with customers.
Build brand immunity with a strong reputation
Work to prevent a negative viral post from defining your company’s social profiles before you have an issue. The stronger your online presence is, the harder it will be for heavily shared content to overpower your brand. Here are three actionable steps you can take to strengthen your online reputation.
Leverage SEO: Go back and read the subheading about how Google works again. That section contains invaluable insights into search engine reputation management.Once you know why content ranks, you can use those tactics to build a bulletproof online image for your business.
Claim all of your social profiles: While you may not intend to use all available profiles, registering them (and any similar handles) will prevent trolls from claiming them. Social profiles are free, so snatch up the ones that could be seen as official accounts to lock them out, and then use the handle that best fits your brand.
Promote corporate social responsibility (CSR): If you’re going to have a viral post, it may as well be positive content that you want customers to see. Here are some examples of CSR that you can use to do great things for the environment and your community. BUt don’t forget to let the press know about what you’re doing. You’ll build a positive online resume for your business while creating content to share on your social accounts.