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How to Protect Your Business's Online Reputation

By Dan Tynan | Small Business

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All Danielle McKnight wanted was advice on natural healing. What she got instead was abuse and threats to her husband’s small business.

It started when McKnight found a naturopathic site that claimed to offer solutions to her health issues. She spent $250 on a series of health videos, an ebook, and access to a forum where she could discuss her problems with a doctor.

First, McKnight had issues getting the videos to work. Then she was unable to access the forum. When she contacted the site for help, the site’s owners accused her of violating her terms of service and threatened to sue her. So she disputed the transaction with PayPal. What happened next is almost beyond belief.  

The owners of the naturopathic site created a Web page with McKnight’s photograph on it, exposed her contact information, and labeled her “a psychotic bully.” Then they tried to destroy the reputation of her husband Conrad’s business, Triad PC Repair of Lexington, North Carolina, by leaving nasty reviews on the company’s Facebook and Google pages.  

Among other things, the reviews accused the McKnights of installing spyware on customers’ computers and attempting to steal money from their bank accounts.

When the McKnights challenged the legitimacy of the reviews – all appear to be from neighbors or employees of the naturopath, none of them Triad customers – they got nowhere. But Facebook determined that the reviews did not violate its “community standards” and let them stand. Google said the McKnights would need a court order to have the offending material removed. (Facebook and Google did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It was a horrible, lonely ordeal,” says Conrad McKnight. “But when you go onto Facebook or Google and say these reviews aren’t accurate, it just provokes them even more. When you wrestle with a pig, you just get dirty and the pig likes it.”

For small businesses, reputation is everything. Consumers trust word of mouth and online reviews more than any other sources of information, according to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Trust in Advertising report.

But when anyone can leave nasty reviews – anonymously, with no fact checking and often little recourse for appeal – it can devastate your business. Fortunately, there are ways you can fight back.

Defame and fortune

The first thing to do is set up Google alerts for your name, your business, and your competitors, so if something negative appears online you can respond right away, says attorney Bennet Kelley, founder of the Internet Law Center in Santa Monica.  

When someone is trashing your business on a Web site, try reaching out to the person who posted the negative content and see whether you can persuade them to remove or modify it, says Kelley. If they’re posting on a third-party site, check if the material violates that site’s terms of service and, if so, ask the site’s owners to remove it.

If the material is truly libelous, you might be able to sue the poster for defamation, assuming you can figure out who’s behind it. But it’s difficult to prove and could cost you many thousands of dollars.

“A lot of times I get a client who says ‘I want to fight this all the way, and I don’t care how much it costs’,” says Kelley. “But eventually every client cares how much it costs.”

Worse, fighting back could cause the post to get even more attention than ignoring it. This is known colloquially as the “Streisand Effect,” named for an incident when the music diva sued a photographer to remove a photo of her home from a site; netizens responded to news of the suit by downloading the photo more than 400,000 times.  

A better strategy, says Kelley: Create more positive content about your business through your web sites and via social media that will eventually push the bad stuff down in search results.

No-star reviews

If you’re on the wrong end of a negative review – whether from an actual customer or a fake one – the best thing you can do is respond quickly and factually, says Darnell Holloway, director of local business outreach at Yelp.  

“Stay cool, calm, and collected,” advises Holloway. “If you respond diplomatically within 24 to 48 hours of the review being posted, you stand a much greater chance of getting customers to update their reviews from negative to positive.”

(Just be careful not to reveal too much in your reply. Medical professionals who shared details of their patents’ treatments when replying to Yelp reviews have been fined for violating HIPPA medical privacy regulations.)

Yelp also lets business owners flag reviews that contain threats, are not first-hand accounts from customers, or appear to have been posted by disgruntled employees or competitors, Holloway adds. Those are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by Yelp’s user support team.

Other review sites may have different rules, but many let you reply to and/or flag reviews you think are questionable.

Just be sure to respond within a few days, or you may end up doing yourself more harm than good, says Michael Roberts, principal of Rexxfield, an Internet investigation and litigation support firm with offices in New York and Australia. “An older negative post can suddenly rise again in Google because of a new response,” he says.

Bad reputations

Some sites exist purely to spread dirt about individuals and businesses, and then charge thousands of dollars for “remediation” or “arbitration” services to remove negative posts. These sites are protected under Section 230c of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts them from responsibility for material posted by third parties.

If you end up being smeared on one of these sites, you may be tempted to hire a “reputation restoral” service that promises to remove the negative content, again for thousands of dollars.

Tread very carefully, advises Roberts. Many of these services have a financial arrangement with the sites in question – part of a “wreck-and-repair scheme,” he says. Roberts says one slander site offered to remove negative posts about his clients for $2000 each.

Aaron Minc, an attorney with Dinn, Hochman & Potter in Cleveland, confirms that many of these sites will remove negative posts in exchange for payment, but says the cost can be significantly less than $2000. Minc claims he can negotiate the removal of negative posts from sites like RipoffReport, BadBoyReport, and Yelp for a fee. If he’s unsuccessful, customers pay nothing.

“In general, all of these sites walk a fine line between what’s extortion and what isn’t,” he says. “But most of the time what they’re doing is perfectly legal.”

Roberts also runs Defamation911.org, a free site that makes it easier to ask Google, Yahoo, and Bing to remove negative posts from their search results, and Page1.me, a paid service that promises to elevate positive search results over negative ones.  

Ultimately, that’s the smartest strategy for protecting your business’s rep, says Rich Matta, CEO of ReputationDefender, which has been repairing online reputations since 2006.

“You want to move up objective factual content in search results and move down negative, outdated, or unfair content,” he says. “You also want your business to be active on social media, and make sure it’s listed in Google’s business directory and any others relevant to your industry.”

For prices starting at $3,000 a year, ReputationDefender helps small businesses create personalized sites, write and promote blog posts, request positive feedback from customers, and encourage them to post reviews to third-party services, says Matta.

“On the Internet, everyone has a megaphone and can generally post whatever they want,” he says. “You don’t want all the money you spend on marketing leading to searches where the results are not favorable.”

Accentuate the positive

Despite the McKnights’ ordeal, their story has a happy ending. When Danielle realized they couldn’t remove the fake reviews, she solicited positive ones from satisfied clientele. She designed postcards with instructions on how to post reviews to Facebook and Google and handed them out to each customer as they checked out. At press time, accolades on their Facebook pages outnumbered the fake negative reviews by six to one.

In other words, they buried the bad news with good – just as the experts we contacted advised.

“After spending weeks trying to reason with the powers that be at Google and Facebook to try to get the horrid reviews removed, I made peace with the fact that they were there to stay,” she says. “What they wrote were horrible unfounded ugly lies. But our customers buried their ugliness with truth. And the truth won and our business is better because of it.”

Reputation 101 for Small Businesses

  • Set up Google Alerts for your business
  • Respond quickly and diplomatically to complaints
  • Ignore older negative posts
  • Solicit positive reviews from happy customers
  • Keep your business listings up to date
  • Post early and often to social media
  • Be wary of costly reputation repair services
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