Negative reviews on Yelp and other review sites can sting, but how you respond also affects your business and its reputation. Just ask Jason Quinn, a 25-year-old chef who opened a Santa Ana restaurant after winning the Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network.
Most of the almost 200 Yelp reviews of Quinn’s restaurant, The Playground, are positive. But when he read one-star review with a snide, he responded with a fingertip rant: “KOBE BEEF SHOULD NEVER BE WELL DONE if you disagree YOU ARE WRONG.” He signed off, “Burn in hell.”
It is not without reason that small business owners feel review sites are shooting galleries in which the profanely disgruntled—or perhaps jealous competitors in disguise—can take potshots at your life’s work.
What’s harder to appreciate is that review sites that allow customers to rate your business or service are blessings, even if they are well-disguised. It’s important to note that 81 percent of the reviewed businesses on Yelp receive a rating of 3 stars or higher. Managed properly, review sites can be platforms for attracting new customers and deepening relationships with existing ones.
All comments add up, even bad ones, to form a coherent and surprisingly accurate picture of how customers experience your offering. So how to make sure you’re able to monitor and respond in a way that puts your business in the best light? Here are four steps you can take.
1. Claim your digital real estate
You don’t have to be a little guy to be burned by a loss of ownership of your name online. In the GOP presidential primary, one candidate, Newt Gingrich, neglected to buy newtgingrich.com. As a result, political critics bought it first, and turned the site into a Google bomb, a form of satire in which the search for one thing leads to something else entirely. In the case of candidate Gingrich, his eponymous website led visitors directly to sites advertising Tiffany’s jewelry and Greek island vacations. (As of this writing, it now Google bombs Mitt Romney.)
It is perfectly legal to satirize or criticize your business in this way, even expropriating your name and logo. This is what happened to one European airline, saddled for years with a search result with its name and the word “sucks” after it. Legal action failed to get the site taken down. So snap up all permutations of your business’s name, perhaps even with “sucks” and “sux” in the URL.
You’re not in the game if you don’t know what is being said about you. Sign up for Google Alerts and other free online message board monitors and follow comments about your business. Use Google Analytics to see the keywords and ads that bring visitors to your website. Like a compass, an analysis of keywords can reveal what people are thinking about your business. And keep your profile on Yelp and relevant review sites current.
Yelp’s algorithms filter out profane reviews. If you still get stung by an ugly review, engage your critic in a positive way. Sometimes this is difficult, but remember your conversations are public, so don’t tell anyone to “burn in hell.” You may not win back your critic, but you might win over the audience of customers.
In his rant, Quinn conceded that his critic was right on one point—his restaurant should offer wine by the glass. He made that change. Meeting a critic halfway makes you a sympathetic figure. Seasoned and communicative owners do that without expletives and all caps, as Chef Quinn did in posting: “In retrospect I WISH I WOULD HAVE PAID FOR YOUR BEERS AND KICKED YOU THE [expletive] OUT OF MY RESTAURANT.”
4. Build up positive feedback
This way, if and when someone takes a whack at you, they hit the padding without bruising bone. You can build what we call a “reputation cushion”—a solid, compelling, attractive online persona that comes to the fore in any search, so that the incidental bad review becomes just a mere speed bump. One example: A blog on your website might be just what you need to attract positive interest and establish your expertise. If you own a small business—a bakery, say—you might offer regular advice on cooking, recipes and seasonal treats. If you are an accountant, you might blog about common tax and payroll pitfalls.
And one more thing: We all need a sense of humor about ourselves. That is the only way to separate the truly devastating from the merely irritating.
Richard Torrenzano is CEO of The Torrenzano Group in New York. Mark Davis is senior director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group. They are authors of Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand, or Business Against Online Attacks, St. Martin’s Press.
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