I couldn't help him. After 45 seconds of conversation with a local business owner who phoned me out of the blue, his voice literally quivering with rage, I knew my words could bring scant balm to his personal inferno of a Gilead in which the negative review had been left and the whole world, he was sure, was laughing at him.
I never know what squirrely local search scenario I will find myself embroiled in when I pick up the receiver these days. This unfortunate gentleman had apparently come across a popular article I wrote last year that summarized business owners' capabilities to edit, remove or respond to user reviews in the diverse top review entities. He wasn't looking to hire me, he just wanted some advice and I'm usually game for that, though I like it better when it seems like the caller will actually take my advice after taking some of my time. My hopes were not strong for this when I hung up the phone.
The basic scenario was that the business owner had received a bad review on Google, was sure he knew who had left it, was convinced it was left out of personal vindictiveness and wanted the review demolished and the reviewer punished. A tall order. I gave him the best advice I could:
I have never been one to scorn emotions. In this case, the business owner was so upset, he sounded like he was barely able to keep from yelling - at me, a total stranger who had nothing to do with his situation. I began by sympathizing with him, sincerely. Criticism is hard to take, whether deserved or not, and perceived injustice is one of the bitterest pills of all to swallow.
I then brought up his Google Place Page and saw that he had very few reviews - less than ten, 80% of which were glowingly positive. I read the text of the offending review. I read it aloud to him in a dispassionate voice and he confirmed that this was the bad review and proceeded to launch into further angry details about how he knew who this person was and how this person was out to destroy his business. Strong words. It became evident that the negative reviewer was someone with whom the business owner had some type of personal problem - I didn't ask what it was. I felt I needed to make an effort to bring this situation into perspective for this business owner who had so blown things out of proportion, that he literally felt his whole business future was threatened by this one negative review. This is what I told him:
1. My perusal of the review revealed what I consider typical of negative reviews - a disgruntled customer complaining. Nothing out of the ordinary. One person, in the midst of other satisfied people, claiming not to have received the services he paid for. To anyone not initiated into the dark details of whatever personal conflict was going on, this review was no worse than someone saying the food at a restaurant was blah, and certainly less bad than claims of food poisoning which are sitting on the local business profiles of thousands and thousands of eateries while doors remain open for business. And, nothing to compare to the absolutely nutty reputation management problem that Beth Haven Baptist Church may have to cope with, as was recently pointed out to me by my friend, Mike Blumenthal.
I made an effort to point out to the business owner that this review, which seemed to him to spell out doom, looked like just about every other negative review I'd ever read and that, in the mix of many positive reviews, it would seem like one crabby soul in a sea of contentment. He was genuinely surprised to hear this outsider's viewpoint, I think, and I hope he was listening as I recommended that his company implement a staff-wide program for gathering positive reviews from happy customers to push down the bad review as time went by. I recommended he branch out and start getting reviews from other review sources, and that he meet this negative action with a deluge of positive effort.
2. The business owner's hope was that the review could be deleted, but I had to point back to the article he'd read and remind him that, sadly, Google is infamous for their lack of accessibility. There is no one to phone, no one to email, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide...Bottom line, you can't get Google to remove a review because you can't speak to anyone there.
Other review entities have taken a much more friendly stance on giving business owners, whose data they have, after all, co-opted, control over whether various reviews appear on their profiles. Google has made commendable recent strides towards enabling users to report problems to them via the Report A Problem link in Maps, but this link does not seem to be intended to cover review disputes, and so far, the only link I know of that you can click regarding this issue is the 'flag as inappropriate' link. To date, I've never heard a single case of that causing a bad review to disappear. If you have, please tell me about it! I told the business owner that I wouldn't hold my breath about the flag link doing anything, but that it wouldn't hurt to try.
The most proactive advice I could give him, in the absence of a way to have the review removed, was to claim his business listing (he hadn't done so and had never even heard of doing so) and to refer back to point 1; start actively seeking positive reviews.
3. So, at this point in the conversation, I had given the business owner the best advice I could: try to see the review as one unhappy blip on the radar that can be counteracted with other happy blips, and claim your listing so that you can begin to gain at least some control of your business data. Overall, I was advocating a positive mindset and actions that could be undertaken to positive effect. But this just wasn't enough for this agitated business owner. I think what he really wanted was revenge for the humiliation he felt he was suffering as a result of his adversary's actions. Frankly, I just can't go there, but for the sake of example, let's play that scenario out in two different ways.
"You're a busy small business owner," I pointed out. "You don't really want to spend money and hours in court do you?"
"Yes! I don't care. I'll spend money. I'll sit in court. I want to stop this person. He's out to wreck my business," he asserted, vehemently.
Well, it's his dime and his time, but I can't think of any worse outcome of a negative review than that the business owner would end up blowing money on a lawyer and spending hours sitting in a chilly, uncomfortable court room (if it came to that). What an inconvenience! And for what gain?
Let's say he hires some lawyer to send some type of cease and desist letter, demanding that the offender remove his review. Well, Social Media and Internet Reputation Management have both been around long enough now for anyone who is paying the slightest attention to have noticed just how huge the reaction can be when a company decides to try to silence an unhappy customer and that unhappy customer happens to have a blog or an account on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. The company never, NEVER comes out looking good and more attention has been drawn to the negative situation than could ever have happened around the initial scenario of this single, bad review. Not a winning move, and I tried to tell the business owner this.
Let's look at the second imaginable scenario. The offending reviewer is frightened off by the letter printed on scary legal stationery and the owner pays the lawyer's fat fee. The reviewer removes his review, crawls away into a dark hole and is never heard from again. Hooray!!! But wait...what about that next guy? That next reviewer who got sand in his salad, a double charge on his credit card or a lousy auto repair job? When he leaves his bad review, do we start all over again, marching furiously back to our attorney's office? Get out that scary letterhead again, we bark, rubbing our palms together in furor. Who cares if I can't be on the job today, winning new clients, making money, running my business? At least I'll get that guy!
To my mind, no one but the lawyer will stand to benefit from this merry-go-round of litigation over something as utterly common as an unhappy customer standing on his 50 pixel soap box, complaining of dissatisfaction.
"Reviews aren't going away," I advised the caller. "You have to learn to understand the game and play it with aplomb."
In a rather combative tone, he told me that that this whole thing would go away if it ever happened to some famous politician or business. I felt it my duty to inform him that, in fact, some goofy friends of mine had actually experimented with hijacking the business profiles of Google, Microsoft and other quite large companies, and that while this had pointed out some of the weak spots in the system, the system had not gone away.
Reviews are not going to go away any time soon, and unlike my little red ball in the photo accompanying this article, you shouldn't bury your head in the sand about this. If point of fact, it has been posited that a profile of all-positive reviews can look fake while a few bad ones add the leavening of reality and trustworthiness customers find believable. What I'm saying here is certainly not news, but it was news to this business owner who is representative of that very large segment of the business world which has still yet to hear about the basic functions of Local Search. No shame in this. My firm still gets calls from people who aren't sure exactly what a website is, even now in 2010, so it's small surprise that busy SMBs have yet to encounter so under-promoted an area of marketing as Local SEO.
But to ignore this extremely significant part of running a modern business would be foolish, indeed, once you know it exists, and the gut reaction of hiding from tough situations is not one you can sustain if you hope to succeed.
As I ended my call with the business owner who would not be mollified by my proactive, positively-slanted advice, he was still talking about getting that lawyer and making that guy pay. He was trying to ask me for legal advice and I had to tell him, politely, that I'm not in the business of making people pay...I'm in the business of making business pay off for my clients. And you don't achieve that if you're wasting time tilting at windmills. As embarrassing, hurtful or enraging as it can be to feel you've been unjustly accused, success is the best revenge.---------------------- Photo Credit: Amy McTigue
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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