The rise of websites that empower consumers to write reviews of our businesses is causing many business owners anxiety, or even outright rage. Of course we love it when people say great things about our business, but what about when they say bad things? Do we really have a reason to fear? Just how significant are bad reviews for the future of our businesses? How can we insure against them? And how can we control what’s said? Here are my practical views on some of the myths and realities of the feared bad review, and some tips on dealing with them.

First off, it’s important to realize that we live in an imperfect world, and despite what technologists believe you can’t “program out” imperfection no matter how hard you try. Indeed, even trying to do so often just introduces other imperfections. I say this because you must realize that, if you’re in business today, there will be those that are saying bad things about your company, and I don’t believe it’s up to technologists to vet or censor what those people say. Though as you’ll see, I do believe we have a duty of care to be able to deal with problems if they arise. I don’t care how virtuous you think you are, there will be those that misunderstand your motives, have had poor luck with your products or services or, for some other reason outside of your control and despite your best efforts to the contrary, have reasons to speak ill of your business.

Since we learned to talk, we’ve been saying bad things about one another—so what’s so different today, and why all the brouhaha? Well, the problem (or if you prefer, the opportunity) is that today we have the power to make our voice heard far wider than the intimate circles of the local pub or local market square. That means that bad words reach more prospective customers and risk damage to our reputation, and also that we are far more likely to hear those rumblings of discontent. So the problem is magnified in terms of both its reach and our likelihood that we’ll notice it.

But before your blood pressure starts heading off the chart, you should take a breath. You need to credit those that read reviews with the same intelligence with which you credit yourself, and I say this for two reasons. Firstl, one bad review does not destroy your business, so long as there are plenty of people saying good things as well. Second, not all reviews gain equal weight in the eyes of the consumers; it’s pretty easy to see personal or vindictive reviews for what they are. I’ve also noticed a trend for those giving bad reviews to try to hide behind some limited anonymity that the web affords them. When most of us are reading reviews we give more weight to the reviews from identifiable people than those from less open personalities, and reviews that sound like personal grudges really are simply ignored.

It’s tempting to think you can control what’s said, but you really have little hope of doing that in most cases—though there are some exceptions I’ll cover later. The reasons why you can’t directly control what’s said are manifold: people are entitled to say what they think, and any attempts to gag critics will likely backfire on you when they make your attempts to gag them public too. Also, consider that the web is a pretty big place, and to try to police it for all occurrences of bad PR for your business with the view to erasing it or stifling the originators will likely take up more time than you have available.

I mentioned exceptions, and there are some: if you have good reason to believe that what’s being said contravenes legal boundaries, then you may decide to take action. Any reputable website will hear your complaint, should have a policy for dealing with such complaints, and should be able to offer you some route to resolution. Be warned however that most sites of this nature pride themselves on offering freedom of speech, and they’ll be unlikely to remove or edit bad reviews without good cause being shown. Often this will need to take the form of some formal legal proceeding which can be onerous. At Brownbook.net, we publish a policy to cover this sort of occasion, the essence of it is, so you can see how local business directory sites like us think is:

  • Your argument is with the reviewer, not with us, we’ll cooperate with you to help you find a remedy
  • We don’t edit or delete reviews without just cause being shown in a formally submitted complaint—except at our own discretion if its plainly obvious that the offending review adds no value to our other users
  • Upon receipt of a just complaint we contact the reviewer to inform them of the complaint and ask if they’d like to modify their review
  • If the reviewer stands by their review it’s the complainant’s prerogative to pursue a legal remedy to request us to release the details of the reviewer so they may take action against the reviewer. We respect the privacy of all our members and we don’t release our members’ details to anyone except in accordance with a formal legal request to do so
  • We respect any formal legal decisions reached

There’s a little more to it than that, but that gives you an idea of the stance that web companies are likely to take (if you want to see the whole thing, I’ve added a link at the end of this piece).

All that being said, it’s worth thinking about some good practical advice for managing your reputation on line, especially with respect to reviews, so here are my 7 top tips for doing just that:

  1. Use Google alerts to listen for mentions of your company or products, good or bad. You can join the conversation to magnify the good and address the bad.
  2. Where you find negativity, first establish a neutral frame of mind, and don’t immediately bite. You can’t deal with the problem in knee-jerk mode.
  3. If you can identify the customer, see if you can resolve the issue offline, then ask them to update their review. You’ll find when you satisfy a previously unhappy customer you’ll be creating one of your strongest advocates.
  4. If the review is truly unjustified, you may wish to respond publicly to the review to provide some balance to the discussion – but use this tactic with care as it can soon turn into a fight, and nothing is less appealing than two people airing their differences in public. If you do this, I recommend starting with a phrase like “dear x, thanks for your feedback and I am sorry to hear you’re unhappy, let me see if I can help…” and then go on to unemotionally address the issue, but don’t just disagree with their view. Here’s an example of a business using this exact tactic to handle one bad review in their otherwise excellent reviews. It leads me to trust the supplier more when communication is as open as this: Aerial Tec.
  5. If the review is nasty, downright personal, or in some way illegal then you might need to take action. Check the policies of the website where the review appears to find out how best to contact and notify them. Don’t just fire off an email—there may be information they need to identify the review in question and their policy will let you know the best (and quickest) way to get any issue resolved.
  6. Do nothing. That’s right, you may decide to do nothing—most of us know we don’t get it right all of the time. This can be hard to do, because we feel our pride is hurt and we want to defend it, but sometimes attempts to fight back simply fuel the fire and can turn a small blip into a big problem.
  7. Get some good reviews. In my opinion this is the best way to balance the picture and swing it in your favor. Ask your good customers to give you great reviews. A word of warning if you’re thinking of faking it by writing your own—don’t. Such tactics are often obvious or at least are quickly discovered.

So, let’s get back to the questions I posed at the start of this post. Do you really have a reason to fear bad reviews? I say, no, but you need to have a certain mindset and deal with them in a certain way.

Just how significant are bad reviews for the future of our businesses? They’re significant, but not for the reasons we immediately think. They make us aware of and provide us with an opportunity to fix genuine problems and turn opponents into staunch allies. Unjustly negative reviews are often exposed as petty and have little sway with intelligent consumers, and in the case of outright illegal reviews you generally have a remedial process to get them removed.

How can we insure against them? In a world where consumers talk to consumers without barriers of time and distance it’s more important than ever to provide excellent products and services, because anything less will be subject to the supercharged grapevine that is the Internet. Assuming you’re doing all that, you may still annoy some people (the old adage of “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” was never so true)—but as intelligent consumers we know this. Instead of trying to eradicate bad reviews, outweigh them by getting great customers to give you great reviews.

And how can we control what’s said? Forget it—you can’t. You simply have to join the conversation. That entails a certain amount of exposure which can be uncomfortable for some, but the way to winning customers when customers listen to other customers for advice is developing trust. And that requires exposure. Warts and all.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Small Is Beautiful

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About The Author: is Senior Vice President at UniversalBusinessListing (part of Name Dynamics Inc.) responsible for managing relationships with strategic partners and product strategy. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveIngram.

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  • tinkn

    At http://www.tinkn.com small businesses receive email notifications of the comments and reviews made by their customers. It’s a very effective tool for monitoring what your customer base is saying about you.

  • http://www.brokerblogger.com/brokerblogger/seosem/ Brokerblogger

    Good article, David, from the perspective of the seller. To be “fair and balanced”, please do an article from the perspective of the buyer. Reviews on the web have been a Godsend to all those buyers who tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about their bad buyer experiences. Too many sellers go by the “letter of the law” vs. “the spirit of the law”, especially in this down economy. This combined with the old, and I believe out of date “Buyer Beware”, means that poor, or even bad buying experiences happen too many times even with the buyer having no legal recourse.

    I believe that buyers and seller, both, should strive equally to “be on the same side”. A legitimate and non-misleading negative review should be looked upon by the seller as an excellent opportunity to “turn a negative into a positive”. Those kind should be eagerly encouraged by any ethical, value driven, and long term thinking seller who wants to build a loyal customer base. The old days of “Buyer Beware”, are now being tempered by Internet reviews with “Seller Beware”. Both buyer and seller have equal responsibility to be highly ethical, and use clear, conspicuous, complete, and comprehendable communication in settling any situation.

  • MrGoogleAlerts

    “You can join the conversation to magnify the good and address the bad.” Magnifying the good is the best approach. I recommend a policy of Reputation Optimization, which involves promoting the positive mentions widely for maximum ranking. Just as you try to end up above your competition for your keywords, you want to have the positive mentions end up above the negatives. Users assume that the results that come first are more important, and therefore more true. They think Google is actually making a value judgment. It is all about the assumption that Google is really omniscient. I try to tell my clients that they should think of Google as a reputation engine. A recent blog post goes into more detail on this:
    http://www.alertrank.com/mrgooglealerts/2009/05/03/google-owns-your-reputation/

  • http://www.EasyOnlineBusinessInfo.com JBanis

    Great article. Dealing with negative news, criticism, or reviews, can for some be hard to take. Yet it takes all kinds of people, and you shouldnt ever take anything too personal for starters. Negativity can hold some gold nuggets of information that you use to enhance your business, so go look for those. Thanks for all the good tips.

 

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