Body_OnlineRep.jpgby Erin McDermott.

“Awful work and unethical business practices! Stay away!”

“I will be sure to tell everyone I know how disgusting this place is.”

“They will suck the money out of you any way they can and do substandard work. AVOID AVOID AVOID!!!”


It’s the Wild West of web commentary out there for small businesses today. Cloaked by online anonymity, customers can and do say anything—including the real examples above, for a dry cleaner, a restaurant, and a portrait studio—often leaving trails of remarkably hostile reviews, false allegations, and even shockingly personal attacks.


But in an increasingly digital world, your search results are also your online résumé, written by people you most likely don’t know.


“People have a tendency to hide behind their computer screens and they’re unedited,” says Ruth Ann Wiesner, founder and CEO of RAW Marketing, a social-media management and online marketing consultancy near Chicago. “They don’t take into consideration that they’re hurting a business or an actual person.


Recently, Wiesner had a client dealing with a commenter posting negative comments on a review site.  This unhappy customer even went as far as to attack the small-business owner herself—including nasty remarks about her hairstyle and shoes. “That’s not even the business she was in. I mean, why?” Wiesner says.


Often, companies wait until the web or social-network heat hits a boiling point before they make a move to address their online reputation. (And even old-school shops that don’t have a website aren’t immune: Sites like Google Maps, Yelp, Kudzu, YellowPages, epinions and others include any and all businesses, and offer a review function as well.)


If you’ve been procrastinating about protecting your Internet rep, where do you start? Below you’ll find what a few pros suggest to get started.


First rule, don’t fake a review—ever

You’ll get caught. And forget dirty tricks.


Take a deep breath and Google yourself

Don’t wait until the rabble reaches a crisis point. Take a good look: Is your company site the top result during a search of your company name? Is the information you see accurate? Is it positive or negative? If it helps you sleep at night, Internet search experts say only two percent of users ever skim past the top 10 results. But business owners should dig deeper and look down into search-result pages two, three, four and five. You may see a pattern of where certain comments originate. And who knows—you might even see some glowing recommendations, too.


Be proactive

Sign up your business for official Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest accounts. These will be yours to control—including which messages appear on them and which don’t. And be sure to get a Google Alert for your company’s name, as well as your name—that way, as soon as the Google scanners come across new references, an email will pop up in your inbox and identify it to you.


Another thing, and this may be difficult to hear, gentle reader: Several experts advise small businesses to also query their company’s name on Google Alerts with—sad to say—the word “sucks” next to it. “Yep, you read that right,” says Wiesner. “Make sure you are being notified every time someone on the Internet uses your name along with the most preferred way of showing disapproval.” Another tactic to consider—buying that negative URL as it prevents it from falling into the wrong hands.



PQ_OnlineRep.jpgEngage your reviewers—carefully

Keep cool-headed and stay polite when addressing negative comments. Be firm, but offer solutions to problems. Avoid getting sucked into an unending battle with critics.


Still, watch out for “brand terrorists,” says Andrew Barnett of Elasticity, a St. Louis-based firm that manages corporate reputations, marketing, and social media. He once dealt with a bedding retailer who had a customer whose bed remote control stopped working. After a dispute arose about a replacement, Barnett says the customer went on a tear, bad-mouthing the business on nearly two-dozen sites, even warning off would-be customers who were researching a purchase. Eventually, the retailer broke down and got the customer a new remote. “There are plenty of people out there who have figured out that if you complain enough and loudly enough, it can work to [their] advantage,” Barnett says.


Find a pro to help

Reputation-management services work to emphasize positive remarks about a person or company online and diminish negative search results, by addressing problem comments, boosting new content, and reacting to changes in search-engine algorithms.


“You can’t remove negative comments but there are a great many things you can do minimize their effect,” says DeAnne Merey, president of New York’s DM Public Relations, which specializes in crisis management and online-reputation work. “The goal is to balance the entries and dilute their impact.  While the solution is not overnight, with the right response these comments will be displaced and moved further down the search results over time.”


But beware: If you engage a reputation-management company and they don’t ask if the allegations online are true, be worried. “If they don’t mind the fact that you’re ripping somebody off, chances are they might be ripping you off, too,” says one industry insider who declined to be named. Ask for references from businesses they’ve worked with and look at those companies’ search results.


Price-wise, reputation-management companies charge anywhere from $200 to $600 a month for small businesses, depending on the type of business and its geographic region. For bigger companies, the services are much more complex, and the price goes up accordingly.


Double down on customer service

It may sound simple, but try to not give your customers reason to complain. Most of the time, when bad things are said, talking directly with the customer can remedy the situation. This also gives customers a great story to tell that will make you look good and help spread positive word-of-mouth.


Sort of like Ruth Ann Wiesner’s client with the nasty commenter. Wiesner said she worked with the owner to respond to the reviews. The commenter actually apologized and, a few days later, even showed up at the business with flowers, saying she didn’t realize how hurtful the comments were until she re-read what she’d written.


The business owner spoke with the customer and gained some new insights on her criticisms. “She said she would put new policies and procedures into place to avoid the bad situation from happening again,” Wiesner said.


But, the business owner added, “I’m not changing my hair style!”