I’ve got some bad news for you: these days, you don’t own your reputation. You may have impeccable customer service, offer the perfect product, and have a staff of well-adjusted geniuses, but your reputation is still not solely in your control. Running an agency over the past decade has taught me that many small to medium businesses cannot keep up with marketing online. It’s a big task and can be overwhelming if you don’t have a process. Want to know who owns your reputation? Anyone with an Internet connection. Chances are you’re getting badmouthed by someone right now.
In order to retain a modicum of control over what’s said about you online, you have to know more about the online conversations about your company than anyone else. Whether you’re a business owner, a company reputation manager, or an outside firm that manages reputations, you’re going to encounter fake or questionable online reviews and you need to know how to diffuse them before they do real damage. Here are five of the most effective methods I know for avoiding and dealing with fake online reviews.
Claim All your Online Properties
You may not own your online reputation, but you need to take responsibility for all of the places that it is being created. Learn about all of the websites where it’s possible to post reviews and make sure that your page is regularly monitored and looks official. Keep your contact information current, upload pictures, create engaging “about the company” profile, and respond regularly to your customers. See if there is an opportunity to insert newsfeeds that automatically show social media updates so your messaging is always cohesive and up-to-date.
There’s an added benefit to having an accurate and up-to-date Google+ page. Your Google+ page helps with local SEO by ensuring you show up more often, and higher up in local searches. Google wants Google+ to compete with other large “like” sites such as Facebook. This means that a good deal of the activity you get and the posts you create on Google+ help with ranking in their algorithm. I know several companies that use Google+ in place of a website quite successfully.
Monitor Daily Activity
It’s well worth your time to actively monitor the conversations about your company online as they happen, rather than after the fact, when they’re already hurting your business. This goes for real negative reviews as well as fake ones. Use Google Alerts, social media monitoring tools, and consider creating a new position with a defined process within your company. If you don’t have the resources for a new position, spread monitoring duties out among several employees or hire an outside agency for keeping tabs on your reputation.
Respond Quickly and Appropriately
If you get baited or receive a horrible review, real or fake, what is the procedure for responding? Who responds? What do they say? Operating a business without a review response plan is like driving a Ferrari without insurance – you are setting yourself up for a costly disaster. It is important to have a process in place before a crisis strikes.
When a customer expresses anger online they interpret online silence as “I don’t care”. The truth may be more like “I haven’t looked at my Yelp page in over a year” or “I just got attacked by a raccoon and am unable to find a hospital that will give me a rabies shot,” but the customer will always assume that you saw their comment, and couldn’t be bothered to respond. Obtaining personal information and reaching out with a one-on-one phone call or face-to-face meeting goes a long way toward calming an irate customer. Do this as soon as possible; the customer expects it.
Also, don’t forget about the real positive reviews! Thank reviewers who leave positive comments rather than focusing solely on the negative. These positive reviews are, after all, what you hope for, and it makes sense to give reinforcement when you get them.
Fake reviews, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to handle. Should you respond? It depends on what the reviewer is saying. If it’s obviously spam or a troll, you can respond with a question or some subtle humor, just to show that you’re reading the reviews you get. If you can’t tell whether a negative review is real, treat it like a real review until you have definitive proof to the contrary. Apologize for whatever irritated the reviewer, and then ask permission to take the conversation offline. Give them your work phone number or, if they’re willing, ask them to meet you in person. The more you can show you’re invested in helping the reviewer (real or fake), the more other review readers who come across your conversation will feel comfortable choosing your service.
There’s also something to be said for knowing when to quit. If you’ve politely responded to what you suspect is a fake review, and the reviewer continues to rail on about the injustice of it all, don’t fuel the fire. If you act like an adult, the bully will slink off to another profile to see who else they can rile up.
Know your Legal Recourse
What if you have a particularly persistent fake reviewer? Know the policies and terms of service for every site. As your last resort, you can sue for slander. Keep in mind that legal action should only be taken when all else has failed. Lawsuits are expensive and online review-related lawsuits haven’t gone well in the past. Our current laws are overprotective of Internet users and sites that hold user-generated content. In my opinion, these protective laws (which, by the way, were written in the late 90’s) should be revised so that individual users of the Internet can’t take down the reputation of a company (and maybe even put them out of business). With so much bad press about fake online reviews, the time seems right for legislative amendment.
Get up to speed on the laws:
Resist the Urge to Fake It
Many companies are churning out fake online reviews these days, and it’s completely understandable that you might feel the urge to join them just to keep up. But be advised, the New York attorney general’s office has already fined 19 companies (both companies that sell fake reviews and those that buy them) hundreds of thousands of dollars for “astroturfing,” using fake reviews to boost company reputations online. I’m confident this is a trend that’s going to continue and that taking the high road is ultimately going to pay off.
The best advice for companies receiving reviews and to those who help them to manage their online reputations is simple:
- Create a plan for dealing with online reviews
- Get (and stay) proactive
The Internet isn’t going away and neither are online reviews. Don’t wait to take action until you’re getting burned by online reviews; claim your online reputation and start managing it right now.
Resources for tracking online reviews:
Searches on Google, Bing, and Twitter
Resources for finding your online property: