In this article, learn:
- Why repairing your online business reputation can be difficult and expensive
- How small businesses can fix their business online reputation
- How to flag reviews for removal
- How to remove Google search results
- How to improve small business SEO by creating content
If you’re reading this post, there’s a strong likelihood that you have suffered some setbacks because of a less-than-stellar online business reputation. The first thing you need to understand is you’re not alone. The harsh reality of our increasingly digital world is you have very little control over what people say about you or your business online. And the importance of a business’s online reputation is growing, even for small, local shops and one-person businesses.
While local business used to rely solely on friendly service, a good product, and positive word of mouth to attract new customers, the new forum for that conversation is online. 97% of people read online reviews for local businesses, and the majority of people trust those reviews as much as personal recommendations from friends and family.
Even if customers are sitting in a business's parking lot or standing on the sidewalk outside the front door, they will likely check their mobile device for “social proof” that there are no huge problems with the business before deciding to enter and buy.
Online review sites favor the reviewer, not the business
For a small business owner suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous customer reviews or other negative content online, this digital realm can feel a little like the Twilight Zone.
Online review sites like Yelp, Google My Business, Facebook, and TripAdvisor clearly value the input of individual reviewers and most make it extremely difficult or even impossible for business owners to remove potentially damaging reviews, unless they meet certain criteria, which we’ll outline later.
In fact, Google has stated that its priority is accurately delivering the search results people are looking for, whether or not those results are necessarily factual.
This could be viewed as somewhat of a “mob mentality” or “power to the people” approach, but since these companies make hundreds of millions or even multiple billions of dollars annually with their current policies, there’s very little chance of them changing anytime in the foreseeable future.
Repairing your business online reputation can be difficult and expensive
There are several companies that may dedicate a team of SEO experts and/or content specialists to your online presence in the hopes of both improving your standing in search engine results as well as “burying” or hiding any negative content.
These approaches can be somewhat effective, depending on how bad your online reputation is to begin with, and—this is key—how much money you have to spend. Experts and specialists usually don’t work for free, and for the purposes of this article we are talking about the online reputation of small, local businesses who are working on very slim margins.
So, since it’s the rare exception for a small business to have the resources to dedicate to hire a team of reputation repair experts, let’s focus on the more cost-effective, realistic approach that small business owners can take to move the needle in the right direction.
How can small businesses fix a bad online reputation?
The first step in repairing a bad online reputation is to clarify and identify the actual source of the damaging content. When small businesses talk about repairing their online business reputation, they almost always mean “reviews.” Some businesses face attacks in other venues, however, so we’ll touch briefly on some steps you can take to remove other types of damaging online content.
If your business suffers a bad online reputation due to negative publicity, news stories, criminal or legal action, bloggers posting damaging—but factual—content about you, etc., then you may be in a position where you need to hire one of the professional reputation repair firms mentioned above.
What kinds of content can be removed?
According to Google, they will will remove results that contain:
- National identification numbers such as U.S. Social Security Numbers
- Bank account numbers
- Credit card numbers
- Images of signatures
- Nude or sexually explicit images that were uploaded or shared without your consent
- Confidential, personal medical records of private people
To request such personal information to be removed, contact Google here.
Two problems with trying to remove content from search results
The first is, even if you get Google to remove damaging content from search results, the actual content still exists on the web and can be found on other search engines, or if people visit the website where the content is hosted.
The second problem is, if the negative content doesn’t fit into one of the above categories, and is factual, there is no motivation for a news outlet or a blogger to remove it—quite the contrary. If people are searching for that content, the website that is hosting it benefits from that traffic, and the more the better. If you consult Google about removing such content, they will tell you to contact the webmaster.
However, if the story or content is outdated, no longer relevant, you may have some success contacting the webmaster and asking for it to be removed. You can also ask Google to remove results that direct searchers to content that has been removed (by a webmaster).
If the negative content isn’t factual and you can prove it is defamatory or libelous, you may choose to take legal action to have it removed. Again, bring money. Lawyers aren’t cheap. What’s worse, legal action almost always just draws more attention to the problem. (To request that Google remove content for legal reasons, click here.)
If the negative content is pervasive and you can’t afford to hire a team of experts, the best you may be able to do is move on to the steps outlined below.
How to remove bad reviews
Step one in all online review site engagement is to claim your business listings on Google, Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and all other applicable sites (such as OpenTable for restaurants). Click the links for detailed, step-by-step articles on that process.
Once you have claimed your pages, you can start responding to reviews and flagging any appropriate ones for removal.
Yelp and other review sites have similar policies regarding removing reviews, so we’ll focus on Yelp for this example. You can flag Yelp reviews for removal if they contain:
- Threats of violence
- Conflicts of interest
- Irrelevant content
- False/fake reviews
- Promotional material
- Private information
To report a Yelp review, click the three dots beside the content and select “report review.”
However, there’s a harsh reality to this online world we live in: if a review appears to be from one of your actual customers, even if it’s what you consider “mean” or “inaccurate” or “unfair,” chances are, it’s there for good, unless you can resolve the problem and convince the reviewer to remove it. And even if they refuse, the best approach here is to respond appropriately to the public review and work to bet more positive ones.
Plus, research shows that negative online business reviews aren’t necessarily as harmful as you might think.
How to respond to negative reviews
When considering how to reply to negative reviews, use the R.E.S.T. model:
- Respond quickly: A single bad review can cost your business 30 customers (especially if left unanswered). Replying in a timely fashion shows you take feedback seriously.
- Eliminate emotion: Even if you’re being attacked unjustly, stay calm. Be the grown-up. Your reply is an advertisement to prospective customers, who will see that you are reasonable and civil.
- Say you’re sorry: Apologizing goes a long way toward meliorating bad feelings. Even if you know you didn’t do anything wrong, even if you’re sure the review is fake or malicious, saying, “Sorry you had a bad experience!” can go a long way towards taking the reviewer’s guard down and helping potential customers see you in a more positive light.
- Take it offline: Don’t air your grievances or continue discussions online. Try to take the conversation private. Provide your contact information or direct them to your website and ask them to contact you to resolve the issue.
If a customer has brought up a legitimate problem that you have addressed, you should state in your public reply that the problem is now fixed as well as whatever other measures you’ve taken to make sure the problem doesn’t recur.
You might offer dissatisfied customers discounts, refunds, or other promotions to bring them back to shop with you—but do this privately. Be careful not to go overboard or make these offers public, or you’ll just be known for handing out free stuff in exchange for a bad review, which obviously is not a precedent you want to establish.
If you suspect the review is fake or malicious, but it doesn’t meet the review site’s criteria for removal, you can gain back some credibility by simply stating something like, “We have no record of this transaction. We take our customers seriously and we are sorry if we didn’t meet your expectations. Please contact us to resolve this issue.”
Even if a review is very harsh or unfair, treating all feedback with professionalism will go farther toward improving your online reputation than arguing, insulting, or ignoring.
Use negative reviews to improve your business
Although it sometimes might feel like it, getting a negative review isn’t the end of the world. In fact, studies show that people don’t trust businesses if they have NO negative reviews. Like Cindy Crawford’s mole, it’s the slight imperfection that makes it perfect. However, if all you get is negative reviews, there’s probably something very wrong with your staff, product, services, or facilities.
See what you can learn from the reviews. Lots of big companies pay millions of dollars to know what their customers think. Online reviews give you useful insights into your customers, all for free. So have an open mind. Often times, reviewers are actually trying to give you helpful feedback to improve your business. Listen to them. Consider ways you can improve.
Start to fix your business online reputation by getting more reviews
The best way to minimize the impact of negative reviews is to get a lot more positive reviews. Studies show 73% of consumers feel reviews older than 3 months are no longer relevant. So if you can start getting more good reviews from your happiest customers, the negative reviews will fade into the background.
Read our detailed article on how to get more reviews to learn the proper way, then simply ask. Don’t bribe or threaten, don’t ask for good reviews, and never try to buy good reviews. Simply tell your customers you value their feedback and put up official signage for Yelp, Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor, etc.
Good, recent reviews have more impact than old, negative reviews.
Improve your online business reputation by producing positive content
If your main concern isn’t negative reviews, but rather negative content posted elsewhere online, things get more complicated.
For small businesses with few resources and little knowledge of SEO, linkbuilding, improving rankings in local search, or similar techniques (best left to those with experience), the easiest way to start minimizing the impact of negative online content is to counter it with positive content.
One way that is approachable to most small business owners is to add positive content to your company website or start a blog. If you can produce high-quality, regular, relevant content, Google and other search engines will begin to put those results up higher and push the negative ones down. This is basically what may of the “reputation repair” companies do, only they have dedicated teams of writers and content producers working on your situation (that’s why they are so expensive).
If you have good writing skills or know someone who does, you may also consider writing an article for an online industry publication, or a guest post for a blog you find relevant, or content for a local news outlet’s Op/Ed page, but if you choose to go this route, make sure it’s not simply a “one and done” thing. For search engines to take your content seriously you need to produce more than just one piece of content. This can take a lot of effort, but over time your content can attract the attention and validation of more powerful sites who might link to it, which will improve its rankings in search results and push any negative content down.
Start today and improve your reputation
The bottom line is there are no shortcuts or easy answers to dealing with a negative online business reputation, but there are definitely ways to start improving right now. Any movement toward the positive will be well worth it.
A Cornell study found, for example, that a one-star increase in your star rating can increase revenue by 39%. And another study found that a half-star improvement in Yelp’s rating makes it 30 to 49 percent more likely that a restaurant will sell out seats during peak hours.
So get started today undertaking the steps outlined above.
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