Online Reputation Management: The New Retail Strategy

Does your business need some brand-aid? Here’s how to make sure your store’s name is as sparkling as the jewelry you sell.

Let’s say you’re a customer. You’re thinking about shopping at your local jeweler. But you want more information. In the olden days—about a decade ago—you might turn to your trusty Yellow Pages, or ask a friend. But today, an increasing number of consumers turn first to the Web—especially to Google.

Google, of course, provides more information than any Yellow Pages ad—or friend—ever could. But that information isn’t always positive—or accurate. Most Google searches will direct surfers to a store’s official site. But they will also bring up user-written store reviews, both pro and con. And if a retailer has ever been in any trouble, has received an unflattering media mention, or was simply trashed on someone’s blog or Twitter feed, that might pop up too.

But do potential customers really take this stuff seriously? Surprisingly, yes—particularly the reviews. Surveys have found that 70 to 80 percent of consumers read online write-ups before they buy a product or service. In fact, what shows up on Google is so important that a new field has sprung up to help business owners get a better handle on it: online reputation management.

Representing themselves well online: Alson Jewelers in Cleveland (top of page) and Goldstein’s in Mobile, Ala. (above)

“It’s critical that businesses have some reputation management strategy in place,” says Don Sorensen, president of Orem, Utah–based Big Blue Robot. “It’s becoming more and more of an issue.” Most of the basics of online reputation management are common sense sprinkled with a little search engine optimization. (For more on SEO tactics, see “SEO Speedwagon.”) Sorensen says if small companies really focus, they “can do a pretty good job” of protecting their online reps. Among the most frequently offered tips:

Know what’s out there.

The first step is to do what Andy Beal, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.–based Trackur, calls “a Google sentiment audit.”

This means plugging yourself into the search engine (as well as Bing) to see what comes up. Experts say the first 10 results to a Google query generally count the most, because they appear on the first page—and the overwhelming majority of people don’t venture past that. But ideally, you should pay attention to the first 30 results (i.e., the first three pages).

Keep yourself updated.

Even after your initial Google audit, you’ll still want to know what’s said about you. So set up Google Alerts—available free at google.com/alerts—for your business name, as well as any variations of it. (For instance, if your store name is a family name, set up one for the name, too.) Google will notify you if those names appear in the news, on blogs, or just about anywhere on the Internet.

Supply “good” content.

So what if you search Google and don’t like what you see there? Then, you have to think of ways to drive out the “bad” content by adding the “good.”

Your official website obviously constitutes good content. But you want to make sure you have a store page on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, ­YouTube, Foursquare, Google+, and Pinterest. You also can add ­pictures to photo-sharing sites including Flickr and ­Instagram, and claim your store’s name on business directories such as Yelp, CitySearch, MerchantCircle, and Google Local. All these listings will show up high on your search results. (While that may seem like a long list, signing up for all these sites should take a few hours at most.) And if you have a press release, post it on a service such as PRWeb. (Unlike the aforementioned services, this one charges.)

On every site, be consistent in how you present yourself. For instance, Matthew Perosi, founder of the Totowa, N.J.–based Jeweler Website Advisory Group, deliberately lists himself and signs any comments as Matthew Perosi. “Everything you do to manage your personal reputation should be under your real name,” he says. “I am always listed as Matthew Perosi, rather than coming up with some silly name like ‘Matt 1234.’?”

Also helpful in your campaign to create or restore your Internet reputation: being quoted by a local publication or a trade magazine such as JCK. When those articles appear, if you are happy with them, link to them on your blog or website. That will drive up their Google rankings. 

Beal suggests taking these steps even if your Google audit is relatively clear. “Do this before you face a reputation attack,” he says. “Otherwise, you will find yourself fighting a fire. It’s good to build this positive content so that it’s insulating your business from anything else that might show up on Google.”

Listen to what’s being said.

Even if you successfully drive away all the bad content, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. If used correctly, online feedback can give you unparalleled insight into your customers. Social media is nothing if not an information gold mine.

“You can build a better company simply by listening,” says Beal. “Twenty years ago, companies would spend thousands of dollars to research the attitudes of consumers. Thanks to social media, it’s available for free.”

So when criticism is offered, take it seriously. Detractors may be cranky or have an agenda, but they also may be right.

Get engaged.

Once you are listening, the next step is to talk back. “Simply acknowledge your customer,” says Beal. “If they are reaching out to you on Twitter, just acknowledge their existence. It’s really about listening and responding to the conversation.”

In the past few years, the growing prominence of Yelp and other review sites has been both a plus and a minus for small-business owners. Most like the positive write-ups but cringe at the negative ones. Yet these sites are now an ­unavoidable fact of life. Yelp, for example, claims 27 million users; its reviews appear on the Bing search engine and Apple Maps.

The site won’t delete negative comments, but there are ways to mitigate their sting. If you get a customer complaint, the first trick, experts say, is to keep cool. If you can, reach out to the consumer privately and try to solve the problem offline. 

“Most of the time the majority of detractors just want someone to say, ‘We know your experience of our company is pretty crappy and we apologize for that,’?” Beal says. “But see if you can take it a step further. Put in a new policy. Demonstrate that this isn’t just lip service, that you really do care.” 

Experts say even if you resolve the customer’s issue, you shouldn’t ask for a change in the review; that will give the impression the rating is all you care about. Yet in most cases, people will change their opinion if you’ve made them happy.

“If someone is complaining it’s because they care,” Beal says. “Studies show that a happy customer will tell five people and an unhappy customer will tell far more. However, an unhappy customer that you then delight will tell 20 people, because they love telling stories about it.”

If you are responding to the comment publicly—Yelp gives you ways to do this—stay calm. If the review upsets you, take a breath and wait a few minutes (or a few days) before you answer. Even if someone strikes you as unreasonable, the last thing you want is to appear unreasonable in return. Imagine you’re handling the complaint in front of dozens of customers—because, in a sense, you are. If a review includes demonstrably false information, you may need to point that out. But don’t attack the reviewer; that will only make things worse.

Retailers should be careful even when responding to ­positive comments. Simply thank the customer; anything else, like an offer for a free gift certificate, could seem like a bribe.

Engage consumers before they complain.

Better than responding well to online criticism is finding a way to head it off. “A lot of businesses don’t have interaction with customers besides the time of purchase,” says Sorensen.

Give people a way to contact you so if they have a problem they can take it to you directly, rather than complain on a public website. Make sure you add customers to your email list, and include on each email a way to reach you; it can be as simple as Contact us with any feedback. Jewelers also should contact clients by phone or email after their purchase just to make sure they are 100 percent happy with the item. (Of course, this helps with relationship-building as well.)

And while Yelp discourages soliciting good reviews, you should make it easy for customers to write them. So in your communications include something like Check us out on Yelp.

Be careful what you say.

If you have a Facebook account that includes business contacts, it’s always best to avoid topics such as politics, religion, sex, or anything remotely controversial. Even jokes can pose trouble—not everyone finds the same things funny.

You can find the 90-year-old Skeie’s Jewelers in Eugene, Ore., and online on Pinterest, Facebook, Foursquare…

If you can’t help yourself, Perosi advises, make sure these comments go only to friends—or at least to people who won’t be offended. You can do this by having different accounts for professional and personal contacts, or by creating separate Facebook “lists” for business and personal contacts. (Along those lines, if you want your posts to be read by the general public, mark it “public” on Facebook. All this can be managed by the button next to the “post” button on your comments.) 

Be honest.

Writing endorsements for yourself under fake names, anonymously trashing your competitors, paying for reviews, and similar schemes aren’t only dishonest, but they can backfire if you are discovered.

In July, Yelp took action against a group of companies it accused of “review swapping”—leaving favorable reviews for each other. (This is against Yelp’s rules.) And in December 2008, a California jewelry chain sued a crosstown competitor for allegedly posting hostile reviews under pseudonyms.

Consider getting outside help.

If you have a serious problem, there are a growing number of companies that specialize in cleaning up your online rep. They often also help with SEO. Still, beware of companies that promise too much. Some boast that they can wipe out all your negative reviews. Yelp has specifically said that isn’t possible.

The best advice is to take your online reputation seriously—because your potential consumers certainly do. “Reputation management is really about listening,” says Beal. “And about delighting the customer. It’s just the online version of it.”