Viral hate mail can spell disaster for your business. More than a dozen online review sites compete for customers’ attention (and purchasing power), each with slightly different content, filtering and advertising practices. Yelp’s policies, for instance, came under fire last year when small business owners alleged that the social networking site manipulated user reviews in exchange for advertising. (A federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit against Yelp last month.)
Now more than ever, savvy brand advocates need to learn the rules of engagement. Review sites use publicly-available data to generate business listings, so you can’t opt out if your ratings are less than stellar. For example, Google Places collects its own reviews and collates them with others from around the web so that they appear like a blinking arrow on a business’ place page. You can't avoid them.
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The solution? Be proactive. Business owners are allowed to submit objective information, such as whether an establishment accepts credit cards or is wheelchair-accessible, along with updating basic profile information, usually at no cost. The technology is moving fast, and skills required to keep up seem to change weekly. To stay in the race, get familiar with the editorial guidelines of four of the major players: Yelp, Kudzu, CitySearch and Google Places.
Review sites prize rich narratives, but they aren’t shy about disabling posts (even legitimate ones) that violate stated content guidelines. That means they try to promote factually correct, personal (and authentic) consumer experiences and seek to downplay profanity, plagiarism, privacy breaches, spam and meandering rants in ALL CAPS.
Yelp, with more than 45 million monthly visitors, has one of the most stringent review filters—an automated system designed to weed out fake reviews (both positive and negative). Google Places offers a “flag” feature similar to that used by Craigslist, with which users can alert the site's moderators of inappropriate reviews. Unfortunately, many sites aren’t interested in arbitrating disputes. More often than not, the reviews are left alone.
And word travels fast. Consumers (and companies) posting information on review sites must cede worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free rights to their remarks. This means that reviewers' comments may reappear on other media platforms. CitySearch, for instance, is part of the larger CityGrid network, with more than 250 websites and mobile applications reaching an estimated 140 million consumers each month.
Tired of snide customer comments left unchallenged? Many review sites offer business owners a chance to thank happy customers or placate the dissatisfied, either through a public mea culpa or by private messaging. Be forewarned that a nasty retort doesn’t win brownie points among customers and could land you in the censorship bin. Instead, encourage repeat customers to sing/tweet your praises online to counterbalance gloomy feedback.
Review sites usually provide a free basic service that includes a no-frills listing, along with space for posting photos, videos and deals. Merchants that offer special discounts get 50 percent more traffic than those that don’t, according to CitySearch. Another technique to improve search rankings is to list a business with multiple specialties.
Kudzu takes it one step further by offering green “BizCheck Approved” badges, monitored and validated by Experian. Experian’s database approves active, registered U.S. companies with clean business reports. Kudzu also offers a “reviews widget,” which allows a business to showcase high marks by linking its Kudzu profile to its website. Another bonus is that the Kudzu business network can connect businesses to each others' profiles, helping them rack up more endorsements.
Paid services, starting at $5,500 a year at Kudzu, offer higher placement for “sponsored” results, detailed activity reports on profile traffic and targeted advertising by neighborhood. Kudzu, like its brethren, is quick to provide the disclaimer, however, that its rankings aren't pay to play; the company won’t fudge the ratings in favor of advertisers.
The proliferation of these sites and services makes it impossible to hide and unwise to ignore what your customers are saying. Building customer relationships and managing your online presence is no longer just an option for your business.
Margie Fishman has worked as a professional journalist for a dozen years, contributing to National Geographic, Newsday, ConsumerSearch.com and many other media outlets. In her down time, she enjoys bargain-hunting, dancing, pretending to be a fly on the wall, and playing with her hound dog, Ernie Pyle.