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Interview with Pierre Zarokian on Reputation Management for Small Business


In the mid-90s, while developing a search engine for a yellow pages company, Pierre Zarokian became interested in how search engines determined their rankings, eventually starting a search engine submission and optimization company. He founded Submit Express in 1998, right around when Google was launched. Submit Express began in his parents’ garage, with virtually no investment, but it became successful within a year. Today, Submit Express employs over 30 people. Pierre is still its president, and is involved with day-to-day operations and management see 

Why is online reputation especially significant for small businesses?

Your business represents a huge investment in time, money, education, expertise, equipment, staff training, and marketing. It is everything—it is your life. So how do you protect your business if a crazy customer goes on a verbal rampage and posts numerous negative reviews all over the Internet? What will that result in?

Your reputation matters and here is why:

  • 83% of consumers say online customer reviews influence their purchase decisions. (Source: Opinion Research Corp., June 2008)
  • A word-of-mouth recommendation is the primary factor behind 20% to 50% of all purchasing decisions. (Source: McKinsey Quarterly, April 2010)
  • Harvard University research on Yelp shows that a 1-star difference in reviews on Yelp may result in 5% to 9% in business gained or lost. (Source: Harvard University, September 2011)

These days, anyone can go online and anonymously leave negative feedback or reviews about individuals or businesses. Sites such as Yelp,,,,, and allow postings by anyone. Posters’ identities are often validated through nothing more than an Email address. Some of these sites may track the IP address of the poster; however, it would be virtually impossible to acquire the IP address without legal action and subpoenaing the records of the complaints site. Furthermore, simply acquiring an IP address is no guarantee that you’ll easily identify the poster. You’d need to subpoena the records of the ISP as well, and, in some cases, it might not have records available.

Consumers oftentimes leave negative feedback and rants on their social media pages such as Twitter and Facebook, and many of those sites normally rank very high in Google and other search engines due to their popularity. That’s why negative reviews posted on these types of sites tend to show up in search engines. If it’s your business that’s being disparaged, the situation can turn ugly.

With that backdrop, the early 2000s saw the birth of a new industry—Online Reputation Management (ORM), also called Search Engine Reputation Management (SERM). Online Reputation Management helps businesses eliminate or reduce the damage caused by negative Internet postings that are ranking high on searches for their companies, brand names, or associated individuals (such as a company president). Removing offending pages is sometimes not possible, even through legal action. However, the targeted use of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Social Media Marketing enables businesses to push down negative pages in search engine rankings—even to the second page or lower, where they will be “buried” and attract less attention. If you have negative reviews online, you could be losing thousands of dollars a month and not even know it.

Are there any benefits that come from negative feedback online?

Although negative feedback is unquestionably bad, it can, in fact, provide you with valuable insights about your operations and alert you to problems at your practice. Stay on top of all reviews posted and be proactive about avoiding similar problems in the future. In my opinion, many complaints happen because of poor management.

If you are running a company with at least 5 employees, most often you may not be directly aware of client interaction with some of your staff.  Negative online reviews are great source of customer feedback. You might also want to consider establishing a medium through which your customers can give you direct feedback. Maybe try placing a review form on your website.

What things do small business customers complain about most?

As a reputation management consultant, my company currently helps many customers with their reputation management, especially with Yelp. I have personally read thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and what I can tell you as being the #1 complaint on Yelp are issues with staff. Oftentimes businesses such as restaurants or medical practices do not have proper management. Most often staff that are under poor management do not do their jobs correctly, either because of lack of proper training or because no one is giving them warnings when they make mistakes. So even though the staff might be the problem, ultimately as a business owner it is your responsibility to be aware of what is going on and properly train your staff or provide necessary warnings to those that fail at their tasks.

Some customers are more sensitive than others, and you never know for sure what will tick someone off. Sometimes, if a customer is bent on being dissatisfied, even doing the best job possible will not help you avoid a negative review.

Are there ways to be proactive when it comes to protecting the reputation of you business?

The best reputation defense is to resolve them as soon as you spot them. If you’re paying attention, you can tell when a customer gets upset. Don’t argue with such customers. Instead, offer a discount or a full refund to avoid getting a potential negative review. You never want to lose a returning customer because of an isolated incident, and you certainly don’t want to lose new customers over negative reviews online. With bad reviews, you could potentially lose dozens of new customers each month. The flipside, of course, is that a happy customer can refer business to you through word of mouth, and also through positive online reviews.

What is the best way for a business to maintain a good reputation?

Your reputation matters, regardless of your company’s size. What people see when they search for you online has an impact whether you’re a one-person show or a giant, multinational company with complex customers.

Owning the top 10 sites that appear in Google and other search engines when your name or that of your business is queried is one way to thwart high-ranking negative information. The easiest way to own the Top 10 for your brand is to create many social media profiles and to launch some blogs. Keep in mind that it’s not just the search engines you need to worry about—sites like Yelp and other review platforms have the potential to do a lot of harm.

Do sites like Yelp really have an impact on small businesses?

Getting negative reviews on Yelp can be very bad for small local businesses. It can cost your business a lot of income. Yelp, a social networking review website launched in 2004, really took off in 2009. Its business model is based on user-generated reviews for local businesses. Yelp uses a 5-star rating system and has mechanisms to stop spammers from posting false reports, and business owners from creating 5-star reports for themselves. You may often see filtered reviews on Yelp (click on the pertinent link at the bottom of any Yelp page to view these). The score from filtered reviews is not added to a business’s overall rating because Yelp has deemed them untrustworthy.

The reviews of new Yelp users and of those whose accounts are not very active tend to get filtered. Reviews are likely to be filtered if the Yelp account they’re coming from is less than 3 months old and has less than 10 reviews. Lack of activity, friends, or a profile picture can all result in filtered reviews.

Concern has been voiced about Yelp pressuring businesses into paying for Yelp advertisements by purposely displaying more negative reviews than positive ones. Many business owners claim they’ve been told by Yelp sales-people that unless they advertise with them, their businesses’ positive reviews will be removed. In 2010, Yelp was hit with a class-action lawsuit by business owners claiming extortion, saying that Yelp demanded $300 a month, or more, for the removal or modification of negative listings. The forum Yelp Sucks also has posts from users with related issues.

Can businesses remove negative listings from yelp?

Usually, you cannot remove negative listings from Yelp, but there are a few ways to try, and sometimes, achieve it. For instance, Yelp has strict guidelines and Terms of Service (TOS). If a reviewer posts a review violating the TOS, you can request its removal. Examples of Yelp TOS violations include copyright infringements and third-party-perspective reviews—all these qualify for removal.

Besides Yelp, the only person who can remove a review is its original author. You may want to reach out to the reviewer to try and resolve the issues that led to the negative review. Perhaps some refund or free service may get the reviewer to remove the offending commentary. You can contact the reviewer from within Yelp. However, if you know the reviewer and have their contact info, then reach out to them by phone.

Legal action is another resort, especially in cases of false reviews. To proceed, you need to know who the reviewer is so you can file and serve the appropriate legal documents. This is a costly option. Nevertheless, if you feel a review is especially damaging, at minimum, have an attorney send a cease-and-desist letter to the poster.

The only other option to mitigate negative reviews is to improve your tally of positive ones. To do this, I recommend that you always ask your happy clients to post reviews on Yelp. Some businesses like to provide incentives, like discounts for those that leave positive reviews, but be aware that this practice goes against Yelp’s policies.

Is there a way for businesses to prevent negative reviews from showing up on Google’s first page?

Yes, you can, but it is a time-consuming process, and often expensive. You would either need to dedicate a lot of time to it, or hire an SEO or Reputation Management expert to help you. Below are tips on a few things you can do.

How can small businesses use social media to improve their reputation?

Negative reviews on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites are harmful, but social media can be used to benefit your business greatly. Planned, proactive participation in social media can create positive buzz around your brand. Moreover, social media sites — Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter and YouTube, to name a few — possess enormous inherent power to have any profile you create on them rank for your brand. Just make sure that the profiles you create contain your brand’s name. This is one way to push down negative content that’s appearing in search engines.

Creating new blogs with your brand name in the domain name, or URL, is also a great idea. WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr are sites that allow you to create blogs with subdomains. You may want to use your brand as part of the subdomain (i.e., Take note that simply creating profiles isn’t enough. Once created, profiles need to be updated regularly through posted content and other activities, like adding Friends and Liking. To carry this out properly, my recommendation is to register profiles on as many social media sites as possible. I recommend a minimum of 300 different profiles.

Registering your brand on multiple social media sites has an additional benefit: it locks down your brand name on them, meaning you won’t risk losing your name to cyber squatters or to someone likely to associate negative content with your name. There are services out there that offer bulk social media profile creations, so don’t waste your time doing this one at a time.

Are there any other steps that businesses can take to further protect their reputation?

If you don’t already own all the different variations of the domain name for your brand, including versions with dashes and different TLDs (i.e., .com, .net, .org, .biz, et cetera), then start registering them right away. In my estimation, it’s best to likewise grab your domain name with the addition of words like “sucks” and “reviews” at the end. Doing so will impede those tempted to launch a site with negative content about you. There’s overwhelming evidence indicating that major search engines use keywords in domain names as a ranking factor. That’s why having these types of domains, and launching sites with them, is a good way to prevent negative reputations from arising.

But be careful! Duplicating content from your main site on extra domains is detrimental. Google actually uses its Duplicate Content Algorithm to filter out duplicated content. If you’re going to create extra sites, make sure that each one has unique content about your brand, and that you’re engaging good SEO and Link Building practices.

How can small businesses recover from negative reviews and rebuild their reputation?

If an incident has created negative publicity for your company, consider reaching out to the media and publicly explaining the situation and/or apologizing to your customers. One of my clients had the unfortunate experience of dealing with a shooting at his establishment that resulted in an employee’s death. His business lost a lot of money. To avoid similar situations in the future, this client increased security and installed video surveillance at his establishment. Heeding my recommendation, the client afterwards issued a press release announcing the improvements. He got the word out about the work he was doing to make his clients feel safe, and more likely to return to his business.

It is relatively cheap to put out a press release. Via PRWeb, it’ll only run you $200. You should also contact local press outlets and send the press releases directly. You might try asking local press to interview you about your business, or to find an angle that could result in news coverage for you. Press coverage helps in two ways:

  1. Clients get some positive information about you.
  2. Online press coverage tends to rank high in search engines.

What other ways can businesses strengthen their reputation?

You may have heard it before: in SEO, content is king. Well, it is also king for reputation management. Create as much content as possible about your company or brand and post it on your own websites. Then, submit it to other sites for publication. Try writing pieces about your industry, such as “How To” articles, and sending them to industry publications or blogs as guest postings. Don’t forget to make these blogs and articles link back to your company and to some of your social media profiles, if possible; that way, the links will help your other properties rank higher.

Is there a specific type of content that works best for building a reputation?

Start uploading videos to YouTube. Google owns YouTube, and the site is so popular that clips posted there may naturally rank on Google’s first page. Imagine, YouTube is the third most visited website, so a video on YouTube may even help you get more business. Providing short, 3-5 minute videos about your profession and business, or informational and “How To” videos, can be favorable. A dental client of mine has created scores of dentistry-related videos. Not only are those videos ranking on the first page of Google for the name of his practice, but they are ranking in both Google and YouTube for particular keywords.

What can reputation management companies do to fix a business’ online reputation?

Most people view their cars as valuable possessions, and when they break down, they take them to expert mechanics, ASAP! Smart people go to experts when something valuable breaks down, even if capable of doing a decent fix-it job themselves. If your brand is experiencing trouble, do you have the skills to fix it? You might know a little bit about SEO, such as how to build links, or understand general concepts related to public relations. But still, you’re no expert. Your company’s reputation is more valuable than your car, by far, so doesn’t it make sense to have an expert take a look at its problems, and heed his or her recommendations?

Can agencies help?

Reputation management agencies can do much to repair your reputation on search engines. They help you build up a positive reputation by ensuring that disparaging information that’s showing up on popular searches for your name, or other important terms related to you, does not rank well. Reputation management agencies can create positive PR for you by getting strategic articles about your company placed in popular websites. This works stupendously when such websites have names similar to terms related to what potential customers are searching for. With this action plan, advantageous information about you will be found by customers searching for your associated keywords, as well as “review” and similar items.

Agencies can also make sure that people produce glowing content about you, organically. Some agencies may have relationships with top publications and journalists to secure good reviews about your product. A good reputation management company will consult with you on all available options, and recommend the best tactics to better your reputation. As experts, they can even guide you through the process of acquiring an attorney to have negative content legally removed, when that is a possibility.

What do you recommend for businesses whose reputations have been damaged online?

The Internet goes both ways—it can generate great wealth for your business by helping you reach many new customers, and it can wreak havoc on your reputation and income. Online negative reviews are among the worst things to deal with, and any business is a target. For small business, having positive reviews on sites like Yelp is essential. And it’s a mistake to wait until you have negative reviews to act. If you have a plan in place to increase your positive reviews on an ongoing basis, you will be better positioned to weather the impact of any negative reviews you receive later. The cost of increasing positive reviews is low compared to the thousands of dollars that can be lost in production after receiving negative ones.

If you need help with your reputation, talk with an expert about recapturing your good standing. Be sure to select whom you engage with carefully. There are scammers who’ll post negative content about you in order to later play savior by removing it. Others are so new to the industry that they can offer little tangible benefits. Check your provider’s reputation online before entrusting them with your own Web presence. Finding a good reputation company is kind of like finding a good dentist…you need to find skilled, ethical, and honest treatment.

Murray Newlands CEO at Murray Newlands

Murray Newlands FRSA is an entrepreneur, investor, business advisor and speaker. Newlands is also an adviser to the Draper Nexus ...

Interview with Pierre Zarokian on Reputation Management for Small Business

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