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:

don't bury head in sand with local reviews

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
July 21, 2010





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.






Comments(17)

Miriam:

A couple of my businesses have received scathing attack reviews. I'm sure its a competitor out to destroy us. After a lot of work one review source removed a review.

I was pretty crazy pissed seeing the reviews.

I should have called you. In fact next time I see one of these bad boys I think I will.

Nice article.

Hey Dave!

See, that's exactly why I have sympathy for this situation. I know business owners have been put at the mercy of wackos and unscrupulous competitors in the review milieu, but like you've experienced first hand, trying to get rid of the evidence is vastly time consuming and possibly not of greater value than would be the acquisition of a whole bunch of positive reviews. Unless, of course, the reviewer has said something illegal or utterly defaming (not the case with the fellow who phoned me). In that situation, you might want to pursue the thing legally, but in any other case, I think you're better off taking the high road and leaving those few bad reviews far behind you in your wake, eh?

It's so nice of you to take the time to share your hands on experience with this, Dave. Keep going strong and may your rotten competitor fall off a log.
Miriam

If other people are like me they read the bad reviews first. I'll use New Egg as an example even though it's not exactly local search. If the bad reviews are saying "it took me five hours to set up this hard drive" and the good reviews which outnumber the bad by 10-1 (your business guy's ratio I think) are saying "piece of cake!" I look at the "bad" reviews as consumer error and go ahead and buy that hard drive.

Your business owner is overlooking a very important fact - the intelligence of his prospective customers and their ability to draw their own conclusions. As a consumer WE KNOW there are people out there who delight in complaining about things. And we all tend to pride ourselves on being able to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. I haven't seen a product or business with 100% favorable reviews in a long time. Indeed some people are happy with the product or service but won't give it a 5 star just because they don't think ANYTHING is worthy of that - and they say so in their review!

Good advice you gave - and I really like the point about taking precious time away from running your business to waste on tilting at windmills.

You know, I don't think all that many people actually read all the reviews. Even if they do, I think your reviews are more believable if there are a couple bad ones mixed in. Plus, more reviews (positive or negative) seem to help your Google Places ranking.

Miriam,

You're on target with your advice to the business owner. With 80% positive reviews, he should focus on getting more of the good ones rather than worry about a couple of negative reviews.

You've mentioned this, but it's a great idea for business owners to respond publicly to reviews, good as well as bad. If you respond to a good review, you'll strengthen that customer's loyalty to your business and if you respond positively to a bad review, it may resolve the situation and it will demonstrate that you're willing to work to solve problems.

Business owners have to make a practice to check the major business listing sites on a regular basis to look for new reviews. A new client of mine discovered he had a great review from 2007 when I checked his local listings.

Thanks for another great post!

Greetings, Karen!
I'm glad you enjoyed this article and your comment regarding the good judgment of people reading comments is a very important one. In point of fact, I did actually explain this to the business owner but his view of the general intelligence of his potential clients was on the dim side...not a good thing. Like you, if I see a small number of negative reviews amidst many positive ones, I tend to feel that this is a testament to the value of the product or service being reviewed. We all know that even the best businesses fail from time to time, and we all also know people who are never satisfied with anything. Taking these two things into account, I can't imagine a universe in which a single bad review equals utter destruction. True, some readers may latch on only to the negatives, but do you really want these people to be your customers, at the end of the day? Maybe not.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this and share your own take!
Miriam

Greetings, Larry!

Yes, I quite agree and this is a viewpoint that has been more widely voiced of late. All positive reviews may arouse suspicion, whereas a mix looks genuine. Thanks for mentioning that you feel this is true.
Miriam

So nice to see you here, Paul!

Yes, the owner response function of those review sites that offer it has amazing potentials for mediation and resolution. I'm with you 100% on that. Sadly, Google has made no effort to allow this type of interaction between owner and user, and this has resulted in some business owners using the Maps review function to respond to reviews (which is not supposed to be used for this) causing artificial inflation of the numbers of their reviews, rather than acting as a response within a given review. I really wish that Google, with the prominence of their app, would add this feature to the drawing board, as I have seen many examples of this practice working so well, for instance, on Yelp. On Google, business owners are left feeling like anyone can take a pot shot at them while they remain voiceless and without recourse to seek resolution. That's less than satisfactory.

Thanks for bringing this very important point up. I always so enjoy your comments, Paul!
Miriam

Actually, I give a lot of weight to HOW a business owner responds to negative feedback online (or elsewhere). If they come back with a very defensive counterattack, not only trying to defend themselves but putting in a jibe on the customer, that would speak louder than 10 positive reviews to me. It's not the negative reviews I necessarily pay attention to, but the tone of the business in response to it.

Nice article!

Anne

I work with small businesses and I see the situation described all the time! An honest business owner, who spent decades building their business and reputation, gets slammed by competitors, customers who did not get a freebie. The post a review that is not true and there is nothing you can do about it.

My heart bleeds for these people, but I cannot help either. We, techies, are quite familiar with trolls and viruses. We learned to recognize behavior and ignore it. People who did not grow up in the virtual world cannot easily adapt to it. And they will spend a lot of money on lawyers with no outcome - the offender changes their user name and posts another bad review.

On the other hand, what do we really want Google, Yelp, Yahoo and the like to do? Should they request proof of complaint or resolution? Should they get into arbitration? How much resources should they dedicate to make it work for both sides? I don't think it is doable. Ignoring and getting more good reviews is the only way - I agree.

Dear Anne,
Yes, the way an owner responds really shows a lot about the quality of a business. I like looking at those responses, too, and have seen many business owners doing a fine job of replying with grace, candor and concern when customers are unhappy. In fact, I have seen formerly unhappy customers go back and edit their original bad reviews to reflect that the owner made efforts to rectify a negative situation. I admire the character this shows, on both sides!

Glad you enjoyed this article. Please, come again.
Miriam

Hello, Lyena!

You bring up a very worthy point: what should Google, Yahoo, Yelp and their contemporaries do about arbitration? What are their responsibilities? For me, this is a complicated situation, because in many cases, these indexes have created profiles for business owners without their knowledge or permission, essentially representing their names online without any consent on the part of the business owner. I think this adds to the stress and ire many SMBs feel when they then discover that they've been profiled in this manner and have negative statements being made about them.

At the very least, I feel that all such review entities have a bottom line responsibility to offer an owner response function. Most of the big players do - Google stands in stark contrast to this with their lack of such a function. Having this basic function in place seems an obvious necessity to me.

Removal of reviews is more complex. I have had numerous conversations with business owners who claim that a negative review is either unwarranted or is, in fact, a deliberate attack on their business by a personal enemy or a business competitor. Now, when Dave, who commented above, tells me that competitors have attacked him in this way, I believe Dave, because I know him. But when it's someone I've never heard from before and don't know from Adam, how do I know who to believe: the reviewer or the SMB? This is the crux of the problem.

What should Google, Yahoo, Yelp, etc. do about this? If they are serious about dominating the world of user reviews, I'd suggest putting together a staff that includes professional mediators, maybe a staff psychologist and a couple of lawyers to handle legitimate disputes. That may seem like a funny suggestion, but it would treat the matter seriously and enable the indexes to decide whether a review should ever be removed, or whether the owner response function is capable of bringing resolution to scenarios by letting both users and owners have a dialogue that aims at positive closure.

I think the subject you've brought up deserves further discussion and would be worthy of a post of its own. Thanks for coming by and leaving such thoughtful remarks.

I completely agree that in this case the guy should act as you have suggested, however for comparison I have seen a case where people are claiming that they are getting 1 bad review every couple days which they don't believe are real, often describing bad service situations that simply didn't occur. In the case i'm describing it appears as if a competitor is logging in with a heap of different usernames, probably from different IP's etc, and posting multiple bad reviews. Haven't worked out what to do with this one yet (it's a new situation), but there has to be something further that can be done about this sort of thing - i'm just not sure what.

Matt

Sometimes it may be good to KINDLY respond with the correct information, with the name of the company as username. For instance, if a negative review says that it takes a long time to shut the machine down, for instance, give the exact number of seconds it takes. If a user says he cannot take a picture at night, give a link to the online user manual...
This shows that you watch your reputation, you take time to respond to (supposed) consumers, you take care to give solutions to customer's problems.
It depends on the kind of negative review; some are too generic.
I agree that users watch at the balance of positive and negative ones.

Greetings, Matt,

Yes, what you are talking about definitely does happen, and it's often pretty obvious when it does. For example, when a bunch of unique accounts are created with which only one (negative) review is left for the same business, that's a red flag of malicious business practices on the part of a competitor. Depending on WHERE the reviews are left, you will have to decide what to do about this. If in Maps, you have almost no power to do anything beyond trying to flag the reviews. If elsewhere...let's say they are in Yelp...you could respond to each review saying something along the lines of:

"We apologize to our legitimate customers who have come here seeking to read legitimate reviews of our business, but we are afraid that this specific review was left by an unscrupulous competitor and not a real customer. We have receive a number of one-off reviews from accounts that were created to leave a single negative review of our business and we believe this is one of them. We have discussed this review with our whole staff and discovered that the events described in this review never took place at our shop. We have come to the conclusion that a competitor has employed someone to damage our reputation. That's obviously a pain in the neck for us, but it's also a imposition on you, our real customer, who came here hoping to read real reviews and not spam. We are always delighted to converse with real customers who have a complaint and will always do our best to find a positive resolution, but we can't do much about spam except apologize for the time you've had to waste reading it."

Something along those lines might do a lot towards letting the public know something fishy is going on. And, in addition to this, you could use the options available to let the review entity (Yelp, Yahoo, etc.) know what is going on.

But not if the reviews are in Google Maps, in which case, your hands are rather tied.

Miriam

I think in a lot of cases a bad review will result in a business owner loosing his cool, even though they would never pay so much attention to a complaint made on the spot. All in all at least this way some businesses will start treating their customers with more care, which is not a bad thing after all.

As the owner/operator of a 20 room motel we had a bad review once and it scared the hell out of us (we weren't owners that long yet).

What I did was not collect positive reviews, but react on the bad review in a way that it bended the bad review in our favour.

Never argue or say that your customer is wrong....just describe what you are doing.

Example:
This what they wrote (partly): (...) after our first night we took the dog for a sight-seeing walk and returned, may be a bit sooner than they expected, to find the whole hotel staff in our room. We had only spent one night, our room was perfectly clean and there was no reason for them to be rooting through our stuff (...)

This is what I wrote (partly):
(...)We do our best to ensure that all our guests leave our motel feeling good about their stay with us and having had a positive experience with the motel. Our housekeeping is one of many services we offer on a daily basis. As owners, together with our staffmember Ann, we take pride in offering clean rooms. The personal care for our guests and our exceptionally clean rooms are well liked and appreciated by the many (returning) guests we welcome at our motel. It is regrettable that our care and professionalism was wrongly mistaken for rooting through ones belongings. It is unfortunate that these former guests were unable to value the hospitality that we'd like to show all our guests.

So there's more than one way to skin a piggy....even though...really liked your article!

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