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Managing Negative Reviews: The Essential Guide

A small business owner reading up on how to handle negative reviews

Business owners have a complicated relationship with Google and Yelp. They value the public customer praise yet scorn the negative reviews.

The persuasive power of online consumer feedback is well-documented:

Even though you might put 110% effort into every aspect of your business, it is virtually impossible to avoid the occasional complaint. Many business owners get so overwhelmed by negative reviews that they ignore the possibility of a solution. It turns out there are several ways to deal with this problem that can help your business.

In this article, we’ll answer the following questions and more:

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    Why Do People Post Negative Reviews?

    There are so many different types of customers, and they all post negative reviews for various reasons. Sometimes, they need to vent. Or maybe they want to warn others. But most often, bad reviews result from a negative customer experience that a business couldn’t resolve privately. When companies refuse to make things right, customers are forced to retaliate with a public complaint.

    Engaging with the customer shows that you’re taking charge of the conversation. You focus on the problem rather than letting the customer’s attitude have the last word. There are right ways and wrong ways to respond. First, the wrong ways:

    Don’t Ignore Angry Customers

    Choosing to stick your head in the sand when something stressful happens rarely works. For some, it’s considered a savvy political maneuver to avoid giving more attention to a critic. But for the local business owner, I don’t recommend this.

    Ignoring negative feedback might seem like the smart thing to do. If you follow many large companies’ examples, you can find reviews that have gone unanswered for months or years at a time. What does that say about that company’s commitment to customer service?

    For the local business owner, there are no pros to this approach. The cons are:

    • You’ve probably lost that customer for good.
    • That customer’s voice is still heard loudly, while your lack of response is always on display.

    Example: What Not To Do

    If you’ve ever watched “Kitchen Nightmares” on Fox, you know what restaurant owners go through for the sake of reality television. One episode featured Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    The show was painful to watch, but what followed online was dreadful. The owners, Samy and Amy Bouzaglo, reacted to customer comments online in a way that is sure to push everyone away. Instead of listening and working to address the problems, the owners bashed the commenters and got even more negative attention.

    Just Google “Amy’s Baking Company” and you’ll find countless articles detailing how NOT to respond to criticism online. Let their ransacked reputation and now-closed business serve as a warning of what not to do.

    Can Yelp Spot Fake Reviews?

    Believe it or not, Yelp uses filters to suppress reviews it thinks are manipulating its system. For example, say 20 gushing reviews get posted to your page in one week. But your business usually only gets 1-2 reviews a week. There’s a good chance Yelp might get suspicious. Yelp doesn’t advertise how their filtering algorithm works, but they appear to consider various factors.

    Yelp has another top-secret algorithm: how they weigh reviews. The reviews Yelp finds credible, reliable, and helpful have the most impact on your overall star rating. Low credibility reviews, whether good or bad, won’t impact your star rating at all. They’ll also be harder to find.

    I want to be clear: Negativity doesn’t automatically indicate low credibility. Yelp may easily consider it to be highly credible. We know two factors contribute to credibility: who wrote the review and how the community responds.

    Yelp has its “Yelp Elite Squad,” or “Elite ’16.” These are power users that Yelp formally recognizes as highly credible reviewers. If you get a bad review from one of these, responding should be a top priority. (More on this later.) The community can also review people’s reviews! Yelp provides a few buttons that readers can use to rate a review, including marking it as “useful.”

    Does Yelp Ever Remove Reviews?

    OK, let’s assume you don’t have a lot of bad reviews. Maybe you have one or two, but they’re vicious. What do you do?

    If the reviewer is an obvious crackpot, trust that people will see that. You don’t have to respond to everyone.

    If your private or public response hasn’t helped, you can ask Yelp to remove it. But this is a DefCon1 response. Pick your battles carefully. Yelp is very reluctant to remove reviews. It will make low credibility reviews hard to find and not weigh them in your star rating, but removals are extremely rare.

    Officially, Yelp will only remove a review if it violates its Content Guidelines. That includes harassing or derogatory comments, apparent conflicts of interest, releasing private information, and other similar types of content. Yelp’s ToS says they “may” remove such a review. But even then, they don’t commit to it.

    What If a Review Violates Yelp’s Content Guidelines?

    If you believe a review violates Yelp’s Content Guidelines:

    1. Click the “report review” button next to it. Yelp will eventually examine the text, though the time frame may vary.
    2. Post a public response noting that you’ve reported this user for violating Yelp’s ToS. You can mention the specific reason. e.g., “This abusive comment has been reported for violating Yelp’s Content Guidelines.”

    If Yelp doesn’t remove the complaint after reporting it via the button, you can contact support. Frame the issue for them since they didn’t see it the first time around.

    Specify which content guideline(s) were violated. For example, you might write, “The user’s description of our staff as ‘smelly and shifty’ is abusive, derogatory language.”

    How Do I Report a Fake Review to Google?

    Sometimes the content of a review is not valid. People can be deceptive and try to manipulate the rating system to their advantage. A rival business might post an experience that never actually happened. An Internet troll can be destructive in making false claims or in posting unrelated promotional information.

    Google has your back for these situations. If a user has violated Google’s review policy, you can flag it as inappropriate, and Google will take action.

    Recently I contacted Google about this exact issue, and they responded by calling me within two business days.

    Please be aware that most bad reviews will not fit this category. You can’t get rid of a review just because you disagree with the customer’s opinion. The user’s wording must be blatantly malicious or inappropriate. If you can’t prove this to Google, then they won’t remove it.

    How Should I Respond to Negative Reviews?

    First, if you have multiple bad reviews – consider for a minute if any of them have a point. Can you be doing something better? Then, prioritize who you respond to.

    Yelp does allow reviewers to update their reviews. So positive interaction between you and the reviewer may result in a revision. The higher up in the review queue it is, the more likely it will be seen. So use review placement, along with the reviewer’s credibility (you can see their profile to the right of their review), to decide whom to address first.

    You can contact a reviewer privately – but only if you claim your business page and upload a photo of yourself as the business owner. You can also respond publicly. If you do choose to respond, stay professional.

    Jean Dion of InternetReputation.com, writing for Search Engine Journal reminds us, “You’re writing about a specific moment in time in which there are two points of view. You’re not defending your firstborn child. Be passionate about your business, but don’t get personal.”

    Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem

    Jay Baer, author of Hug Your Haters, writes, “Hugging your haters and answering every customer complaint (especially online) can be a massive competitive differentiator.”

    Customers have occasionally changed their reviews after a business has responded. Just think of a one-star rating changing to a four- or five-star rating. That’s excellent publicity! They’ll write about why they did and how your listening and working to fix their problem made them feel.

    Treat your online customer service as seriously as you do in-person customer service. And take advantage of the online tools you have available to dull their edges.

    How Can I Prevent Negative Reviews?

    Given a choice, most customers would prefer to have their issue resolved rather than waste time complaining online. So, if you want to prevent bad reviews from bubbling up in the first place, make it very easy for customers to reach you if there’s a problem. Here are a few simple ways to reduce friction:

    • Add live messaging features to your website, so people are just a click away from help when they need it. Remember, an angry customer is already frustrated, so don’t make them hunt around your site for contact information.
    • Be reachable by phone for customers that prefer more personalized communication. An angry customer won’t sit on hold for an hour waiting for a resolution. Make sure your customer service team is large enough to handle feedback quickly and easily reachable during all hours of the day.
    • Publish a page on your website for returns and exchanges, and make that process seamless. Sometimes people already know what they want to do, and all they need is a little direction.

    Bury Reviews You Can’t Fix

    Let’s face it. Sometimes you can’t win over an angry customer. Or worse, a competitor waged a fake review attack against your business, and you can’t get them taken down.

    Sadly, negative feedback isn’t confined to online review platforms where only a handful of people might discover it. If someone searches for your company, those one-star reviews will pop up on the first page of Google, damaging your reputation and driving away conversion-ready customers.

    The solution? Bury them in Google so fewer people will discover them.

    Did you know that most searchers never look past the first page of Google? The first ten search results get 84% of the total clicks. So, if you push down complaints that they slip onto page two or three, you’ll dramatically reduce their visibility. Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Reputation management takes time and effort. But, here are a few techniques to suppress negative reviews.

    How To Suppress Negative Reviews:

    Step 1: Optimize your website

    Create pages on your website that feature customer reviews and optimize them to rank with some basic SEO techniques.

    Step 2: Establish profiles on other review platforms

    If bad reviews have overrun one platform, claim others and actively seek out positive feedback.

    Step 3: Claim and optimize key social profiles

    Even if you don’t think your customers are on specific social platforms, your online reputation can benefit from them. Create business profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Optimize these profiles with your business name and consistent branding, so Google knows they belong to you.

    Step 4: Start a blog

    Buy a new domain with a similar version of your company name and start a blog. Regularly share exciting company news, industry insights, or useful information for potential clients.

    Step 5: Create campaign microsites

    If you run a campaign, especially seasonal, you can create a small website to host the information. It can be just a few pages, but as long as you optimize it properly, it will show up in your business’s search results.

    Since bad reviews have such a powerful impact on your bottom line, it’s vital to have an arsenal of strategies to handle them.

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