Businesses have always known the importance of word of mouth. Many successful businesses have been built on word of mouth referrals, and many have been killed by bad word of mouth.
But now the landscape is changing, making word of mouth more important than ever - only now, that word of mouth is being communicated on the Internet.
People - your customers - are turning to the Internet as their primary source of information on products and services. Instead of opening the yellow pages of their phone book, they turn to Yahoo or Google. And in addition to websites and listings for local businesses, they are finding ratings and reviews!
The online ratings explosion is just starting; Internet entrepreneurs are demonstrating that virtually anything can be rated online. All of these sites feature a fair share of rants and raves. Many of the comments are semi-coherent ramblings, often typed with CAPS LOCK down. But surprisingly, over time and with enough ratings, a fairly accurate picture emerges. Many reviewers provide well-written reviews and useful information. And the sites are being visited and read!
The ratings phenomena may not have reached your industry or your community, but it probably will. Businesses need to understand online ratings.
Use a search engine to look for rating sites in your area and business. (Search for things like landscaper ratings in Pittsburgh or hair salon reviews in Sacramento.) You may find that your business is already listed on a rating site. If it is, make sure that the basic listing information (business name, location, website) is correct, and if not, contact the site operator.
If your business is not listed, see if there is a way to add your listing. Do not pay for this service! Legitimate rating sites are not supported by the businesses being rated. (However, a few sites offer enhanced "listings" for a small fee. Consider paying for this if the site seems to be well run and has a lot of traffic.)
Check the rating sites regularly. You might actually get some good information on how customers see your business, and where you need to make improvements.
Encourage your patrons to rate your business. Satisfied customers will give you good ratings.
Some businesses add a button on their website linking to a review site; they usually find that their customers will post very positive ratings. It also makes a good impression to show that your business encourages feedback!
Don’t try to "flood" a rating site with phony reviews. Many sites use algorithms to detect the source of ratings, and may even remove businesses that try to cheat.
The best way to avoid bad reviews is to do what successful businesses have always done: provide good service, and respond quickly to complaints and problems. But even the best businesses sometimes have dissatisfied customers.
If you find a bad review on a rating site, stay calm. You can contact the rating site and ask if there is any way to challenge the review or have it removed. In most cases review sites do not remove reviews unless the review violates the site's rules, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
Some sites have a way to comment on, or rebut, reviews. If this option is available, you can post your side of the story. Stay calm and professional, and set a positive tone. Check your spelling, grammar, and punctuation before submitting your rebuttal.
Some businesses threaten to sue rating sites where bad reviews are posted. Threats of legals action are generally ignored by the rating sites, because they know that they are on solid legal ground. Under the law, the sites are not liable for content (reviews) posted by third parties.
If the review is doing serious economic damage to your business, you may get a court order demanding that the review site release any information they have about the person who posted the review. In most cases, this will be limited to a timestamp and IP address, and some sites don't retain even that information. If you have a timestamp and IP address, you may get another court order requiring the ISP that owns the IP address to disclose the identity of the user (which may well turn out to be a library computer or Internet cafe). If you successfully identify the individual who posted the review, you may then take legal action against that individual. Be aware that the reviewer will have a number of legal defenses, and that, even if you win, the amount you can collect will probably be limited to your actual financial damages.
Given the high costs of a lawsuit and the challenges involved, there are very few cases where legal action makes business sense.