How to Protect Your Business’s Online Reputation

6 minute read
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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