Most businesses who have to worry about online reviews are brick and mortar businesses. While a web-only business might gain a few public comments they can always keep moving through virtual space. And out-SEOing a “BobJonesSucks.com” site isn’t as hard as out-SEOing a monstrously popular and content-rich site like Yelp.

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A restaurant, hairdresser, or other local business lives or dies by two things: online visibility via local SEO portals such as Google Local for Business, and online reviews.

Online reviews serve two important purposes.

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They (1) convince the customer to come and do business with the establishment, if those reviews average out at 4.0 “stars” or above and (2) contribute to the establishment’s ranking in all of those local SEO portals.

Given smartphone adoption, verbal search, and Hummingbird, local SEO visibility serves the same function that Yellow Pages visibility served 20 years ago. If you’re not there, you’re not getting any phone calls and you’re not getting much foot traffic. 90% of your customers will find your business via one of these portals.

The clash, of course, is this: these local SEO portals don’t take reviews posted on your own website very seriously as a ranking factor. Google wants reviews posted on Google, Facebook Local wants reviews posted on Facebook. Bing and Yahoo local are a little less important...chances are if you rank well in Google you’ll rank well on the other two major search engines.

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But if you don’t keep some manner of control over your reviews you could lose business to a single nasty review. You don’t want to give review portals too much power over you or your business.

I have thought long and hard about how to end this clash, and how businesses can adopt a review strategy that enhances their reputation without shooting themselves in the foot with local SEO.

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Find a way to capture as many of your customer’s e-mail addresses as possible, because you’re going to resolve this conflict with two e-mails.

The first e-mail gives customers a chance to vent their concerns.

The first will ask customers about their experience directly. Were they satisfied? What could have made things better?

By giving customers the opportunity to talk to you directly you take control before they go and vent their spleen on a review portal like Yelp. If they aren’t happy you get the opportunity to sincerely apologize, and to take the steps that you need to take in order to make things right. Once you’ve made it right the chances that you’ll get a negative review drop dramatically.

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If it’s just too hard to get e-mail addresses you can use an alternate portal like “Owner Listens” to encourage customers to come to you with problems before they go to the internet at large.

Remember, this only works if you make a sincere, focused effort to fix the problem. If you get angry or defensive at a customer’s online criticism it’s almos guaranteed that they’ll go off to trash your reputation somewhere.

The second e-mail asks for the review.

The second e-mail directs the user to one of three helpful review portals. You choose the portal so that the customer doesn’t go to portals that are more likely to harm you.

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These e-mails only go out to customers who have not come back to you with negative feedback. You’re going to work to segment your e-mail list between customers who were unhappy when you contacted them and customers who either said everything was fine or who did not respond at all.

The second one will read something like this:

Dear [Customer]:

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Thanks for visiting us at [establishment]. We really enjoyed your company and hope that you’ll become one of our regulars!

We are constantly working to improve our services. Would you be willing to help us out with a bit of feedback? Just visit any of the sites below to tell us what you thought of [your business name].

[Your own website review portal]

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[Google Local Reviews]

[Facebook Reviews]

Thanks in advance for your help!

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Best Wishes:

[Owner or Manager]

Sure, you’re asking for honest feedback, which would seem to open the door to a bad review. But remember, you’ve already screened these customers a bit. Psychologically, a happy customer is going to leave feedback that says, “Yeah, that was a really great place.”

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As it is, 80% of real reviews tend to be right around the 4-5 star range. Most customers leave reviews because they want to help you out. You are simply protecting yourself from the very few disgruntled customers who might have a disproportionate influence on the health of your business.

Choose any review portals you want, but...

Make sure the review portals that you choose serve you. Always start with your own website - get your web developer to add a page that will allow people to leave feedback directly on your site. If you manage your own webpage through a platform like WordPress just choose an appropriate plugin.

From there you can use any review portals you want, but make sure you check out the reputation of those portals. You want to steer clear of Yelp, for example, because Yelp has a well known reputation of conveniently “losing” good reviews whenever a business refuses to pay their exorbitant advertising fees. Yelp denies this allegation, but the anecdotal evidence keeps piling high, and some of Yelp’s recent lawsuits have been very telling. In general, if the site is primarily a review site that sells advertising then you’ll want to steer clear.

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Google sells advertising, but it doesn’t attach that to its reviews. It’s focused on PPC. So Google is generally pretty safe. Ditto for Facebook. By contrast, Yelp, Angie’s List, and portals like them have their own agenda, one that runs counter to yours.

You can take a look at a side-by-side comparison of some different review portals by checking out this blog post.

Work hard to be the best you can be; Both Online and Off

In the end, no attempt to control your internet reputation (or your visibility online) can be successful if your business isn’t doing a good job of serving customers. Every time you get negative feedback from a customer you should truly evaluate your business. Look for ways to make real improvements so the issue doesn’t come up again. As your business improves so too will your chances to end the disparity between, not only local, but increasing regular white hat SEO services and reputation management.

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And you have to end the disparity. There’s no point in having good reviews if nobody can find you...and there’s no point in being found if your reviews chase customers off to your competitors.