Take More Control of Your Online Reviews

by Kevin Casey on June 19, 2013
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Online ratings and reviews can be a complicated puzzle for small-business owners to solve. Yet a favorable online reputation is a crucial source of leads and sales for many retail and service businesses.

For example, when’s the last time you took a chance on an unknown restaurant with horrible online reviews? If you answered “never,” you’re not alone: 70 percent of consumers say they trust online reviews. Moreover, reviewers tend to weigh in more often on small, local businesses. Diners are 185 percent more likely to post reviews of independent restaurants than of chain locations, according to review-monitoring site Reputology.com.

So, how do you put your best foot forward in what can be a maddening game?

The Intuit Small Business Blog turned to Reputology co-founder Jack Yu for his expert insights. Here’s what he advises.

1. Respond to negative reviews. Don’t waste time worrying about unflattering reviews or trying to get them removed from the offending site. You’re better off focusing on responding appropriately when unhappy customers complain and on offering everyone the best service possible. (Do not freak out, unless you’re angling for a reality TV show.) Most sites also offer some mechanism for flagging truly abusive or fraudulent reviews.

“One of the most actionable things a business owner can do is respond to the reviewer privately and publicly [see #4], if possible,” Yu says. “A number of businesses we’ve spoken to say that 70 to 80 percent of the time they can get an unhappy reviewer to change their mind or return to the store.”

2. Solicit positive reviews. Based on feedback from businesses and its own market research, Yu notes that some review sites make it easier than others for owners and employees to encourage positive word of mouth. “It would appear that TripAdvisor and OpenTable are the most business friendly, in that they have mechanisms for businesses to go out and solicit reviews from their happy customers, whereas Yelp and Google have language in their terms that discourages any solicitation.”

That doesn’t mean you should ignore Yelp and Google listings. But if you’re trying to encourage happy repeat customers to spread the word about your business, you’ll want to direct your efforts toward sites that support the endeavor.

3. Feeling overwhelmed? Prioritize accordingly. Managing the growing number of review sites, not to mention social networks at large, can seem like a business unto itself. (In fact, it is — which is why Yu started Reputology.) Do what you can, and don’t lose sight of your business. “Our recommendation is that you monitor your reviews and do what’s possible at that site,” Yu says.

If you find yourself struggling to stay on top of everything, consider prioritizing sites based on the referral traffic to your website or industry norms, which will vary. “According to our study for restaurants, if you correlate number of reviews to traffic, the priority would be Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Google, OpenTable, and Urbanspoon — and then the rest do not seem to fall in any meaningful order,” Yu says. When in doubt, base your rankings on your website stats, what customers tell you, and your existing reviews.

4. Be creative when encouraging word of mouth. Yu praises a hotel he’s spoken with for its use of TripAdvisor’s branded feedback cards. The company does its best to put the cards in the hands of happy customers, and it also gives small cash prizes to employees who are mentioned by name in positive reviews. Since doing so, the hotel has increased its TripAdvisor ranking from the 50s to the 20s.

Some restaurant owners swear by the practice of responding to negative reviews publicly and privately, according to Yu. “The idea is that their response shows potential customers that they are [listening to] what their customers are saying,” he says. “And others have said they will reply to positive reviews, too, to continue to build customer loyalty.”

The best results come from actually acting on constructive feedback. “One restaurant showed us a scorecard they made in Excel to analyze their reviews by categories like food, service, and atmosphere over time,” Yu says. At least one tangible improvement came from that practice. “Customers had complained on review sites about the bread being cold, so they installed small heaters to keep it warm across their multiple locations.”

5. Think beyond restaurants and hotels. So far, Reputology’s primary focus has been restaurants and hotels, which play the online reviews game for particularly high stakes. But online reputation extends well beyond those industries.

“We know of a locksmith who’s had success getting reviews on Yelp by asking his customers where they heard about him and then talking about how beneficial reviews on Yelp have been to help him get new business,” Yu says.

“He’ll also talk about how Yelp has helped him find great restaurants [and other businesses] and exchanges some tips. It’s an indirect way of encouraging his customers to [use] Yelp — and within their guidelines, since he never outright asks for them to leave a review.”

Kevin Casey is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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