6 Ways to Handle Negative Online Reviews

Feel like you're being held hostage by online reviewers? Small-business owners offer tips for dealing with bad feedback.
March 29, 2012

Before 2008, the name Yelp meant nothing to small-business owner Merrily Rocco. That year, a prospective client expressed concern about two negative reviews posted to the user review site by former customers regarding her Lake Tahoe wedding design firm, Merrily Wed. Shocked by the news that there were any negative reviews at all, Rocco investigated, thus beginning a multi-year effort to have the misleading reviews removed.

Unfortunately, Rocco’s story is a common one within the small-business community. It was especially damaging for Rocco, whose potential market consists primarily of celebrities and well-heeled clients. “I have a smaller pool of brides,” she explains, because of her premium prices. Given her exclusive target market, every lead is precious. And Rocco knew that any testimonials from dissatisfied customers could be disastrous for Merrily Wed, especially since most of her business comes from word-of-mouth referrals.

In the end, while Rocco was unsuccessful in having the problem reviews removed, she was able to mitigate the damage done.  Here are the steps she took, steps that every business owner should take note of.

1. Contact the review site

As soon as she discovered the bad reviews, Rocco reached out to Yelp to ask for help. In keeping with its official standard practices, the company did not remove the two client reviews. However, they did eventually take down a third review submitted by a competitor after Rocco submitted proof of the party’s identity. (Yelp generally prohibits business owners from writing negative reviews of their competitors' businesses.)

As Rocco discovered, successfully convincing a review site to remove a negative comment is a challenge. Deanna Yick, spokesperson for Google Places, another one of the most popular review sites, explains that, “Reviews are a forum for users to share both positive and negative opinions. We do not arbitrate disputes and more often than not, we leave the review up.”

If you have no luck in getting a negative post removed from a review site, there are other steps you can take.

2. Join the conversation

After contacting Yelp, Rocco decided to respond to each of the reviews publicly, addressing the issues while maintaining a professional tone. You can also choose to respond privately, but doing that will not allow potential clients to here your side of the story.

Craig Jooste, owner of the Seattle-based painting franchise 1-888-WOW-1DAY, also experienced a few bad reviews, and deservedly so, he says, following a disastrous Groupon experiment that overloaded his employees. The result was employees being rushed and late for in-home quotes that had been booked back-to-back. One customer quickly took to Yelp to comment on the company's scheduling issues, writing, “WOW, what a disappointment.”

Like Rocco, Jooste chose to publicly respond to the reviewer. In his case, Jooste apologized for making the customer wait and acknowledged the company’s missteps. He even offered to complete the painting project in order to make up for his company's unsatisfactory service. His efforts paid off: After completing the work, the customer updated his review from one star to four and complimented the company for delivering quality service.

Online reviews are not set in stone and can always be updated by the reviewer, another reason to respond to any posted reviews—whether positive or negative.

3. Highlight the positive

Yelp runs each submitted review through an algorithm designed to determine its legitimacy before posting it live on the site. Reviews deemed suspect may be hidden from the public in the “Filtered" reviews section at the bottom of each page, and even legitimate reviews that fail to clear the filter will not appear on the company’s page.

So in her public responses, Rocco drew attention to the 17 five-star reviews currently hidden in the filtered section of Merrily Wed's page.

Zalmi Duchman, CEO of TheFreshDiet, found another way to deal with the filter. In addition to pointing potential clients to his own company’s filtered four- and five-star reviews, he created his own review websites.

Duchman started several blog pages with URLs including the terms “fresh diet,” “review” and the names of key cities with Fresh Diet operations, using SEO techniques to drive those pages to the top of related Google searches. He then used the blogs to feature other positive reviews that his business had received in order to present the public with what he felt to be a more accurate representation of the quality of his company’s services.

Duchman also advises other business owners to check their Yelp and Google Places reviews daily, respond immediately to any negative feedback and even ask clients to remove reviews that he feels to be misleading or unwarranted.

4. Encourage positive reviews

Now that she realizes that negative online reviews are here to stay, Rocco has taken the initiative to get positive reviews from clients and asks them to post on other review sites, like CitySearchJudy’s Book and Angie’s List.

5. Develop a strategy for responding to threats

With online review sites providing a modern-day version of word-of-mouth marketing, each review can be either helpful or damaging to a business. Recognizing the power a review now wields, some customers try to blackmail business owners into providing free services.

One of Jooste's customers did just that, threatening to post negative reviews unless he did some painting for her for free. He told her, “I don’t play that game,” and she “went crazy with bad reviews,” he says. He considered taking her to court but decided it made more business sense to acquiesce and do what she wanted, figuring it would cost him less time and money in the long run. In exchange for the free service, she removed the negative reviews. “It killed me to do it,” he admits, but it was a business decision he felt was in the company’s best interests.

6. Familiarize yourself with the cultlure of online review sites

The reality is, you can do everything right and yet still receive a negative review. It all depends on the customer’s expectations; they are either met or they're not.

Online reviews should not be your only method for receiving customer feedback. Taking a few minutes to follow up by phone after the completion of a job or a sale can help head off unflattering reviews and provide an opportunity to satisfy frustrated clients before their feedback goes public.

Also understand that comments written by first-time reviewers may have a higher chance of being filtered out. That’s because “Yelp is a community of folks who are passionate about reviewing,” says Darnell Holloway of Yelp Business Outreach. “It’s not a site for drive-by reviews.” Comments posted by loyal Yelp community members are more likely to appear on your company's public page.

Holloway also points out that 80 percent of the reviews posted on Yelp are three-star or higher, refuting rumors that only negative reviews make it through the review filter.

“You have to deal with bad reviews, you can’t ignore them,” says Jooste. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that small-business owners can minimize the influence of negative reviews and encourage satisfied customers to join the digital conversation.

Illustration by Pete Deevakul