The upside of being on the Internet is how quickly you can reach people and expand your marketplace significantly. That is, however, also the downside. If you’re successful at getting attention of consumers online at some point you may become a target for negative attacks.
On the Web negative information can spread fast and can cost you thousands of dollars a day in lost business. Unlike traditional, offline media where it’s easier for people to forget the negative comments, thanks to search engines, this information becomes a permanent record. And, unless you do something, people will continue to find these negative results and base decisions on them.
Negative feedback is nothing new, and it happens everywhere. It is a problem on eBay, on blogs, forums, and on review sites. Rip Off Report is notorious for providing high visibility, negative information on businesses. In fact, the site ranks so well on Google that businesses write negative reviews about their competitors using their own keywords so they can get better rankings on the search engines.
So what happens when someone in your industry - a competitor - starts an online smear campaign against you or your business?
Small Business Trends Radio recently interviewed Jay Bean, CEO of OrangeSoda, (disclosure: the company I am affiliated with), on this very topic. He told about one way the company has been affected. For example, someone who he suspects is a competitor has posted negative comments about the company on multiple message boards, forums, and blogs. “It’s clear from the posts that he doesn’t understand our business. The claims don’t sound right. We’ve tried to identify the person but we can’t trace him. He hasn’t responded to our attempts to contact him,” said Bean.
There Are Different Types of Negative Feedback
I want to distinguish between types of negative feedback. A lot of negative feedback is an opportunity to engage and respond. Then there is negative feedback that is intentionally malicious. Here are two basic types of negative feedback:
1. A real customer who is disgruntled or has a genuine complaint against your business - warranted or not.
The Air Force has developed a policy for dealing with negative feedback in these types of situations, with a helpful flowchart, as follows (click for larger image)
2. A competitor who is systematically trying to destroy your business by consistently harassing you and leaving negative feedback online about you or your business. This person has never been an actual customer, and is out to defame your business.
Tactics to Combat Online Smear Campaigns
There are things you can do to address negative feedback:
1. Use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) — SEO is the process of creating and promoting information online about your business so when someone searches your business name or variations of it the results that show up are positive or neutral. SEO is much easier if you are proactive and are there first rather than reacting once something negative shows up on the search engines.
SEO can be a very complex process, but there are a few things you can do on your own. Be sure there are a variety of links that contain your brand name along with variations of it (such as your brand name and a product name). Create profiles on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Even if you aren’t an active participant it’s a placeholder and you can put links to your website and write a description of your business using keywords to describe what it is you do.
2. Promote the Positive to Displace the Negative — Do a search on variations of your business name in the major search engines. Find links to stories that are useful or reflect well on your business. Link to those stories on your website, your blog and other websites or press releases. There is a little more to this than I can cover in this article. You may need to hire an SEO company or reputation management firm for help.
3. Document Abusive Content and Look for Clues to Identify the Culprit — Save all email or URLs with abusive or defamatory content about your business. If it’s on another site, report them to the site owner. Some sites have policies and will flag or review the content and may monitor and remove it and penalize or block the person posting it. Check email for addresses or details that give clues to the identity of the person trying to hurt or ruin your business.
5. Avoid Over-Reacting Online — Go ahead and respond but wait before you fire off a quick retort. If you respond to negative comments stay neutral; the key here is to respond not to react. Don’t engage in a war. Ask for contact information and offer to address complaints. Remember that responding is positive and will likely do you good in the long run, reacting is negative and only perpetuates the problem, and can reinforce the negative attacks.
6. Consider Legal Action — Some businesses decide to sue websites that post negative reviews. Since this can be an expensive and lengthy process, be sure you have exhausted all of your other options first. This should really be your absolute last line of defense against an online smear campaign.
Has your business been the target of an online smear campaign? What did you do?
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About the Author: Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is Newspapergrl.com (Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.