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How Small Businesses Can Manage Their Online Reputation

Your company's reputation is one of your most important assets. As a business owner, one way to build your brand is with a strong business presence online. You can do this by posting articles, blogging, testimonials, videos and so on-all with links back to your business website.

Outside of building credibility yourself, there's another important facet of reputation management to consider. A disgruntled customer can easily file a complaint on a site such as The Rip-off Report, Scam Informer and other so-called "attack sites."

If you've built an online presence, you're lucky-such a report is likely to be far from page 1 in the search engine rankings, and it will be easy for you to mitigate the damage. But what happens if you don't have a strong online presence, someone files a complaint against your business and it winds up on the first page of search results?

First, take a deep breath. Second, be aware that this problem didn't happen overnight. It took time and it will take time to repair. Essentially, you have two options: Hire a reputation management service or repair the damage yourself. Before you begin, know that repairing your reputation is going to take a lot of work, and time, regardless of which option you choose.

To find a legitmate reputation management firm, you need to do your due diligence. A good place to start is your circles of influence. For example, Facebook and LinkedIn connections should be able to offer good resources. Check all references carefully before engaging a firm. Beware of sock puppetry, or the practice of writing fake reviews that companies pay people to write (or simply write themselves under a fake name).

In addition, see if the firm has registered with a service such as IDhonesty, which verifies a business owner's identity and therefore increase his or her credibility as a reputable business.

You also need to know that these reports are unlikely to go away. According to The Ripoff Report, those reports never come down, even if the complaint is resolved. (That's a challenge unto itself-in many cases the people who post the report are anonymous, making it difficult to find out who they are and address the problem directly.) If that's the case, your only alternative is to bury the report(s) in the search engine rankings, as far back as page 5 or 6, making it unlikely for them to be found.

Do-It-Yourself Reputation Management Strategies

There are many things you can do-some related to SEO, some to building business relationships-to push malicious reports down in search results:

  • File a rebuttal. Avoid using emotional language, as that will diminish your credibility. State the facts in a calm, clear manner that's free of name-calling or blaming. In addition, it's a good idea to ask your colleagues to post rebuttals on your behalf. This will show any viewer that you have plenty of support on your side.
  • Buy all available domains that match your business. Place a blog on each one and make sure they contain an "About Us" page. Another variation on this idea is to buy domains with long tail keywords that match your business and use these as "feeder" pages that direct to different parts of your website.
  • Obtain testimonials on Linkedin and use those for the different blogs.
  • If your colleagues have websites or blogs, ask them to post a testimonial about you and your business with a link to your site.
  • If you have videos, make sure you add your name to each one. This will make it easier for viewers and search engines alike to identify that you are the source of the information presented in the video.
  • Join professional membership sites and create a full profile for each one.
  • Produce content each week with your name, your business name and links to your website.

Don't Let Bullies Get Under Your Skin

Amid the initial shock of discovering a malicious report about your business, it's important to know that there are people out there who will use bad reviews to try and get your money. In one case, a business owner was sent a letter from a reputation management firm only nine hours after the report was posted, offering to fix his damaged reputation for $5,000. If you get a letter like that, don't respond. It's probably coming from an extortionist; if you engage them, your problems will become worse.

Another nasty problem can arise when customers demand special treatment from a business and threaten to post a negative review if they are denied. It's happened to innkeepers on TripAdvisor more than once.

If this happens to you, don't give in. That will only empower the extortionist, and you can be sure he'll come back for more. In addition, remember that one negative review won't sink your business. Besides, even if you meet the demands of the extortionist, you might still get a negative review. File rebuttals using calm, clear language, and avoid point-by-point fights.

That said, know that the situation can rapidly escalate into cyber bullying. If that's the case, here's what to do:

  • First, appeal to a higher authority-law enforcement, Internet service provider, hosting company and so on.-with the power and willingness to stop the bully. This last part is crucial. If the higher authority has the power but is unwilling to use it, the battle is over unless you choose to continue to fight. That could take years, too, since closing down an online extortionist is not easy.
  • When the battle is over, just walk away. This is hard to do because it's counterintuitive; when you're being attacked, the natural impulse is to fight back. Unfortunately, bullies get their "juice" from the conflict, and they want it to go on for as long as possible. If you walk away, you take away their power. This can be especially difficult if there's a financial investment involved, but when you consider how long the conflict could go on, ask yourself if it's really worth it. You could sacrifice years of your life.

Walking away will defuse the conflict, but don't expect it to suddenly end. The bully will almost certainly taunt you and do everything he can to drag you back into the fray.

Even when it does end, don't be surprised if the bully resurfaces in an effort to rekindle the battle. The best response is no response. Walk away, again-no matter how much you want to fight back. This will save your life, sanity and health. While it's very tempting to fight back, unless you can defeat the bully you're liable to escalate the conflict-and face legal and/or criminal repercussions to boot.

Don't Feed the Internet Trolls

The word "troll" probably brings up an image of a nasty, ugly creature living under a bridge. In real life, Internet trolls can be a nightmare for your business. They may not write an inflammatory report about your business; rather, because they bought your product (and don't like it), they feel they have license to insult you and your service as they please.

News: 'Patent Trolls' Cost Tech Companies $29 Billion Last Year, Study Says

The best response is to refund these people and block them from communicating with you further. If you make the mistake of engaging a troll, you might be dragged into a "flame war." Like bullies, trolls get their "juice" from the conflict. Refuse to go further. Report the troll to his ISP and block him from all further communications with you and your business.

As you can see, reputation management isn't as straightforward as it seems. There are many online predators and criminals who can wreak a great deal of havoc for you and your business. As mentioned earlier, your best defense is to build a strong business presence online. That, combined with excellent customer service, will help you over the short and long term.

Nathan Segal has been working as a freelance writer based in British Columbia, Canada. Reach him via email or visit his website. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

Read more about internet in CIO's Internet Drilldown.

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