Why Reputation Management Matters for Small Businesses

Filed in MY BEST POSTS, Reputation Mgmt., SEO by Matt McGee on July 29, 2008 45 Comments

SEO Success PyramidNever has the opinion of the individual been as powerful as it is today. One negative blog post or product review can spread online in a flash and change the direction of a company. Need proof? See Jeff Jarvis’ 2005 blog post, Dell lies. Dell sucks, which created the “Dell Hell” phenomenon and forced the company to make big changes to how it interacts with its customers.

We’re doing business in an era when search engines appear to be putting greater value on blogs and user-generated content; when customers are more likely to trust the unfettered comments of their peers; and when anyone unfamiliar with who you are and what you do is likely to type your name into a search engine and “Google” you. That’s why reputation management is near the top of the SEO Success Pyramid. If you hope to succeed online over the long haul, what other people say about you matters. A lot.

What About Small Businesses?

Sure, you say, big companies like Dell — of course they need to do reputation management. But not me. Not my small business. Nobody blogs about my company, or the products I sell. Nobody leaves reviews about me on the web. I’m too small.

I might’ve agreed with you five years ago, but not today. Consider the case of a local car dealership in my hometown, one of a couple Ford dealers I could choose from if I’m buying that make. If I go to Google and do a search for Ford dealers in this area, I’ll get some Google Maps results with a couple customer reviews featured prominently:

screenshot of negative reviews

Two bad reviews. And what makes it worse for this dealer is that very few other car dealers in this area have reviews, so just the fact that this dealer has reviews — negative or not — means they appear higher in the SERPs. Ouch.

Compare that with the reviews for this small bike shop in my area:

bike shop reviews - positive

The point is that people are talking about small businesses online — even local car dealerships and small bike shops.

Small Businesses are Catching On to Reputation Management

Slowly but surely, the idea of small business reputation management is taking hold. Proactive small business owners are learning to manage their reputation on review sites like Yelp. This is new territory for many small businesses, and traditional media occasionally picks up on the idea — sometimes reporting the good and sometimes the bad.

Good or bad, I hope the message is clear for small business owners: It’s time to pay attention to what’s being said online about your company, your industry, and your products or services.

A Quick Interview: Andy Beal

Andy Beal is one of the leading reputation managment experts in the world; he (literally) wrote the book on this topic: Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online, co-authored with Dr. Judy Strauss, is an absolute must-read for businesses of all sizes. The book makes the case for why monitoring online reputation is necessary, and offers specific strategies and tactics for building a great reputation across the Internet.

While putting together this article, I emailed a few questions to Andy about small businesses and online reputations. Here’s what we talked about:

Matt McGee: I’ve had small business owners tell me that reputation management is only for big companies. What’s your reaction to that?

Andy Beal: I’d say it’s the opposite. Larger companies have the marketing budgets to help with their reputation management. Small companies often don’t have that luxury, so reputation management is a way for them to compete on a more equal footing. In addition, small businesses — especially local businesses — live and die by customer referrals. It might help to call it “referral management” when speaking to small businesses — that’s something they’d more easily understand.

The idea of monitoring all kinds of company-related names, product names, executive’s names, and so forth, probably turns off a lot of small business owners. They think they don’t have time for that. What’s the absolute minimum that a small business should be doing to monitor its reputation online?

There are two approaches, both very effective. First, find your “centers of influence” and only monitor your reputation at these places. For example, if you’re a restaurant, you could probably get by with monitoring only Yelp.com and CitySearch.com. Online retailers might just monitor ePinions.com and perhaps one or two influential bloggers.

The other approach is to “cast a wide net.” This is where you use social media tracking to keep an eye on any mention of your brand. Even if you simply monitored the name of your company, you’d cast the net wide enough to catch most feedback, praise, and complaints.

I think some small business owners would be surprised to know that people are out there reviewing their company on sites like Yelp, InsiderPages, or Google Maps. And some of those may be negative reviews. What’s the best way for a small business owner to handle negative reviews when they happen?

First, don’t panic. Negative reviews happen. If you serve 100 customers a day, and maintain a fantastic 97% satisfaction rate, that’s still 3 customers a day that might post a negative review online.

Here are three steps to consider:

  1. Try to identify unhappy customers before they finish their transaction with you. If you can fix the problem early, they may never even post their complaint to the web.
  2. Respond to negative comments with sincerity, transparency, and consistency. Apologize for the incident. Explain how it happened, why it’s not the normal way you treat customers, and how you’re working to ensure it never happens again. Ask the customer for an opportunity to serve them again and provide a better experience. All of this will leave a positive impression with anyone reading the initial negative review.
  3. Encourage your happy customers to post their reviews too. Unfortunately, happy customers just don’t have the motivation to post a positive review online. Sometimes, simply asking your delighted customers to post a review–and point them to the review site you’d like them to use–can be enough to surround the odd negative review with positive ones.

And finally, for the small business owners who want to start getting good reviews to improve their reputation — how do you suggest they go about encouraging customers to write reviews online?

You need to make it easy for your “raving fans” to post a positive review. You also need to figure out how to make them “want” to do so, without a financial incentive — which ensures their review is not a paid shill. The best way is to let them know that they play a huge role in the success of the company. Do they think you have the best lattés in town? With their support at Yelp.com, they’re ensuring that you stay in business and they always get their beloved lattés.

The key is to make them feel like a valuable part of your brand and that their help will make your company better, which ensures they benefit, and rewards them with the satisfaction that they did their part.

Thank you, Andy, for the great conversation.

Additional Reputation Management Resources for Small Businesses

If you’re a small business owner looking to learn more about managing your online reputation and joining the conversations about your company, your products/services, or your industry, I would begin with Andy and Dr. Strauss’s book. It’s an excellent read, with a great balance of theory and action plans. Beyond that, here are some additional resources to consider:

There are many more reputation management books, ebooks, and blogs online. I’ve listed the ones I’m familiar with — the ones I trust enough to include in this article.

Final Thoughts

Customers will talk about you, or your products and services, or your industry. Prospects will be influenced by what they say, and by what they see when they search Google or Yahoo for your company name. That’s why reputation management is such a key part of the SEO Success Pyramid, and why it’s something small businesses must do for lasting online success.

Comments (45)

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  1. This is the kind of stuff small business owners everywhere should be reading. Regardless if your business is big or small, it’s time to remember your focus is on best serving your customers. Build high standards into your delivery of products and or services and give them something great to talk about.

  2. great article. I hope more people read this and understand how important it is.

  3. Josh says:

    Reputation management is key for businesses of any size. What is amazing to me is that most businesses are either not aware of or don’t care about tools like Google Alerts that tell them when they are mentioned around the web.

    Empowered customers are a good thing. It makes products and companies better….and if companies choose not to behave with this in mind, then their clock is ticking.

  4. George says:

    Jippidy.com is one more tool for the business owner. It allows the business owner to help mold their reputation in the image they want, a sort of anti-Yelp for the business owner.

  5. Ben says:

    Great posting. Reputation mgmt is critical – especially for local b2c companies.

  6. Thanks for the shout out about our tool and great post. Thanks for concentrating on what the little guy can do to help himself.

  7. Extremely interesting. This topic has been around for quite a while in India – people have been grappling with these issues trying to set up online reputation management systems. The link that you outlined with 34 tools is fabulous. It lacks a few things though.
    So for example – as outlined above, people are subscribing to Alerts – they are even listening to consumers on Twitter and FriendFeed and setting up RSS feeds for the same. Fan Pages on Facebook, Get Satisfaction Pages – Brands are going where their audiences are to manage reputations.

    Sample this – i mentioned ‘Crocs’ to someone and all of a sudden Crocs was following me on Twitter. That’s a little intrusive. Maybe things need to be fine tuned.

    People have been talking about an entire industry being set up for Online Reputation Management – one that sources work from across the World!

    I did a small Case Study for My Friend who has founded a beautiful Project Management Tool cum CRM Solution called Deskaway

    So we set up a blog – http://www.deskaway.com/blog/index.php
    A Get Satisfaction Page (Great for PageRank)- http://getsatisfaction.com/deskaway
    A Twitter Page – http://www.twitter.com/deskaway
    And Now – A Facebook Fan Page which will integrate with the blog

    Let’s see how the various properties mushroom. But some very interesting points raised nevertheless!

  8. Flying Dog, a US beer manufacturer and small business is doing a lot of successful online advertising. The buzz (our specialty here in Europe is monitoring and measuring the buzz in different languages and regions) for the beer is creeping up in the English-speaking market. It’s a good example of a well-run, efficient, and cost effective campaign.

  9. This is a great article and interview with Andy…I have seen online reputation management become a very hot topic with small and mid sized businesses…It seems that so many people focus on improving negative reputation, when most companies don’t get it that they should proactively manage their brand online in the search engines.

    Most businesses that are around for a while are bound to run into some sort of reputation issue. The question is as a business are you ready and prepared if something happens. It seems like companies wait until they start loosing money or the issue is bleeding before they try to put a bandaid on the issue…

  10. It’s quite annoying how you have considered my comment as ‘spam’ – when all i was trying to do is outline a case – study.

    Is this the mafia? :P

  11. PS
    The comment i just posted was in reference to my previous comment that i took a lot of time and effort to construct!

    It would be great if you could approve it :)

  12. Matt McGee says:

    Harshil, if you scroll up, you’ll see your comment — approved the day you made it.

  13. Sorry – my bad! Apologies! Sorry!

  14. emily says:

    great article, i love this stuff! i also found http://www.reputationhq.com to have a powerful tool for team reputation management.

  15. Glen Allsopp says:

    Cheers for the link Matt, much appreciated

  16. Very nice article! (Somehow I must have overlooked it originally…)

    It so happens that I am responsible for the Reputation Management page (http://reputatiemanagement.startpagina.nl/) of the Dutch Startpagina network, *by far* the most popular link portal/directory in the Netherlands.

    I’ve added a link to the article (of course :-) ); I just thought I’d mention it here since the Reputation Management page contains quite a few links that would be of interest to an international audience (although *some* of the sites are in Dutch)…

  17. Great article! Small business owners are learning that credible reviews are like gold. Your customers are telling you exactly what they like and sometimes dislike about your business, and the best reviews are unfiltered by the format of a customer feedback card or survey. Do more of what your customers like and stop doing what they dislike, and your business will grow.

    I think the term “reputation management” is a bit of a misnomer. You can’t really control what your customers say about you online. However you can encourage your satisfied customers to leave online reviews and you can respond intelligently to any negative reviews that appear.

    Again, great topic!

    Paul

  18. Ehud Furman says:

    Hi Matt, great post – In response to the specific need of managing small businesses online reputation, we’ve created http://www.lookuppage.com , an online tool that help you manage and control your online presence, and track who is looking for you. You can join for free, or opt in to our paid service and guarantee top position for your page across all leading search engines, using SEO and PPC

    Hope that info is helpful.

    Best Regards,
    Ehud.

  19. Daiv Russell says:

    Absolutely wonderful points, Matt. I try to get these points across to my clients as well. It’s amazing how resistant people can be to actually doing something about the internet at all, much less attempt to outsource that effort to someone who is perceived as expensive.

    The economy is really putting the pinch on the small business owner, and they seem to be falling back on what they know and are comfortable with and shrinking, rather than reaching out to grow their business to stave off the recession.

    I don’t want to try to be a spiritual leader to my clients, but it seems that a lot of the “problems” small businesses have today have a lot do with with what’s in the minds of the small business owner rather than what’s in their wallet.

    - Daiv http://Twitter.com/DaivRawks

  20. The time for closed web sites or silos of infoamtion is giving away to a constant evolving voting system of figging, stumbling upon and supporting or burying you and your reputation.

  21. John says:

    This is a great post and is very true. Someone has obviously spent a lot of time and research on this article! Much like everyone else I worry about ‘bad press’ Thankfully we’ve not had any! But if you do get the odd comment then it’s not the end of the world. Just concentrate on all the good things people are saying about your business and get over it.

  22. Greg says:

    I can’t imagine not being concerned about your reputation. I guess there are sectors that compete entirely on price, but this has always been important.

    In an age where there are review sites of every kind, it strikes me that is increasingly important to manicure your reputation.

    Your site should allow customers to comment directly about your products and services.

  23. Jim Johnston says:

    This is really helpful. We have never had a real customer complaint in over 26 years of business. Now we are fighting off false statements from competitors and terminated employees. Anyone can leave libelous statements with no recourse. We are in a steep learning curve.

  24. Actually, you do have recourse Jim. If the posts are defamatory or otherwise violate the site’s terms of service, you can request that they be removed by the website. If you know who posted the reviews and they are false, have your attorney send a cease and desist letter to the reviewer warning him/her to remove the review. You can also ask your happy clients to submit positive reviews, which will move the negative comment to page 2.

    You need to respond in some way. The worst thing you can do is try to ignore the negative reviews. They won’t go away and if ignored, will likely attract additional negative comments.

  25. Katie says:

    Great post.

    Reputation seems to be on every company’s agenda at the moment. I think the most important thing to do is develop a dialogue with your consumer.

    Social media provides the perfect platform for this and I advise my clients to use it as a open platform to redress customer issues

  26. Shirley says:

    Great article on a very delicate subject, would recommend all small businesses to read carefully. Thanks

  27. William says:

    Thanks for listing the books and ebooks. Good reads.. I have been reading a lot on Andy Beal.

  28. J.F. Lucero says:

    It’s about time that small business should realize how important it is to build reputation online. In today’s situation, trust is very important. Your reputation can either build or ruin your whole business.

    I found this site that may be helpful if you are a small business owner.

    http://www.ducttapemarketing.com/blog/2008/03/03/34-online-reputation-management-tools/

  29. Thanks for the great article. You would think every business would focus mainly on their reputation. Without a good reputation, you really don’t have a business. Now with the internet, anyone with a computer and an opinion can be heard. I am going to send this article to my staff. Thanks again.

  30. Reputation management has become an integral part of the SEO packages I build for my clients. I try to explain to them that it is vital for sales conversion. A prospect will find them, launch a new window and then google their name, phone number etc.. looking for social proof as to why they should do business with them. What is shocking now is how quickly rogue seo providers attack new competitors. I have launched several new sites for clients on the web and they were noticed and attacked within days by fake posts on the usual complaint/extortion sites. It seems that regular seo for some has been immediate unprovoked attack and slander of new competitors. It is a sad state of affairs and you must protect yourself accordingly.

  31. Great post with very good analysis!

    So true, reputation management is essential for small business.

    You structured this post very well. Entire main points are beautifully explained.

    Thanks for sharing.

  32. Debby Binns says:

    Interesting that your article was written in 2008 with the Social Media market on the increase, this article is even more relevant today than in 2008! Thanks for your good advice and has made me realise that we need to give our customers a vehicle for giving positive feedback! Thanks.

  33. Sarah says:

    It is interesting this article goes back to 2008. I suspect this advice is now even more relevant for SEO than when it was written.

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