How to clean up your business's online reputation

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When is a response warranted?

Do what this big-box chain did not: Buy domain names that trash your brand.

What if you believe that a complainer has the capability to engage in a mature debate instead of a hostile flame war? Can a measured response ever be appropriate? CEO Michael Fertik thinks that it's possible, provided you aren't dealing with someone whose message is littered with profanity and hostility. "Unless the person is truly nasty and it’s clear there’s no room for productive conversation, in most cases you should indicate your desire to resolve the situation as soon as possible. Let them know you’ll contact them—this protects their privacy and enables you to fix the issue without an online audience. Make sure to follow through," he says.

Your overtures should be as private as possible, such as via email or a direct message on Twitter. Your goal should always be to encourage the complaining party to revise or remove their message from whatever forum it's on, although directly asking for action like that should not come until after you have corrected the problem they're alleging.

And remember: If someone is griping about your business or its products, they might have a valid complaint. Consider all complaints seriously and take corrective action when it's warranted.

Your small brand can't offset trash talk as well as a big airline can.

Deal with Yelp, eBay, and Amazon

Third-party sites that accept reviews are some of the toughest places to protect your reputation, and that's by design. Sites such as these make it their business to protect and promote the interests of consumers, and if you're on the other side of the fence, you're automatically seen as the enemy, at least to a certain degree. Even the courts have been siding with shoppers, with recent major rulings protecting consumers' right to vent on Yelp and other consumer-review sites.

The protocol for dealing with complaints here, however, is basically the same as outlined above. Hostile and profane comments should be ignored. People who post articulate and well-conceived comments may be engaged. However, Zammuto says that Yelp can be particularly damaging. "Based on our experiences," he says, "Yelp will filter out good reviews once a brand receives bad reviews. And when the bad reviews are false and egregiously negative, Yelp will not remove them." Zammuto's approach to negative Yelp reviews is to never respond—as he says this pushes the page up on Google results—and to use SEO tactics to suppress them.

Ask for coverage

With third-party sites that allow reviews, Fertik notes that getting positive reviews is another important step in stemming the damage from negative ones. Positive reviews increase your average ratings, of course, and fresher reviews will push older reviews down the page.

"Businesses can ask customers for honest reviews to help build up the base of reviews people will see," Fertik says. "It's just important that businesses ask for accurate feedback, that they don't incentivize or pay for reviews, and that they never write fake reviews themselves."

When someone leaves a positive review, reply to it with a thank-you post, which will further increase its credibility and the perception of your responsiveness.

When a hard stance is required

If things become really nasty, you might have no choice but to get litigious. You can take any of numerous legal avenues to have negative material taken down, but generally these tactics will be successful only if some law is being broken or if defamation—something provably false said about your company—is involved.

Litigation gets expensive quickly, and offers varying rates of success. But if you're determined to go this route, here's a brief guide to your options, courtesy of Zammuto (who is happy to work with an attorney to file these suits for you).

  • DMCA takedown: A simple tactic that you can use if a blogger has stolen copyrighted material from you in some way is to invoke the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act
  • UDRP complaint: Domain-name registrars must follow the UDRP (Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy), which helps protect trademarks. A complaint is useful if someone is cybersquatting on a domain name with your name (or a variant).
  • Defamation lawsuit: Can you prove that statements made about your company are false and malicious? Even just the threat of a lawsuit can often get negative material taken down.
  • Harassment charges: Any physical threat can be the basis of a criminal complaint.
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