Digital agencies with skills in developing a small business reputation management strategy are being presented with a lucrative revenue opportunity.
The booming popularity of social media and online review websites means small and medium businesses (SMBs) need to be more aware than ever of what customers are saying about them online.
In fact, one study from PowerReviews found online ratings and reviews are “the most important factor impacting purchase decisions”, ranking above price, free shipping, brand and recommendations from family and friends.
In other words, the study suggests shoppers nowadays place a higher level of trust in what people say about a business on Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor and Yelp than word-of-mouth marketing.
Shoppers are also noticing how business owners or employees respond to reviewers on online platforms to vet the quality of their customer service.
Unfortunately, many SMBs lack the time and resources to track what people are saying about them across the many different review websites.
Many also don’t have the skills to respond in a way that can help them diffuse tense situations, or capitalize on opportunities to use online reviews to improve search engine optimization (SEO) outcomes and address customer pain points.
The lack of time SMBs have to deal with reviews provides agencies an opportunity to charge for online reputation management services.
In this blog, three experts weigh in on the key components of a small business reputation strategy. We garnered insights from:
- Malcolm Stone, Founder of ReviewIgnite, a Florida-based online reputation agency
- Dr. Kerry T. Manis, a doctoral researcher who focuses on marketing strategy at Texas Tech University
- Sundari Swami, Toronto-based Director of Product Management at Vendasta
Principle 1 - Help SMBs claim their listings and set up alerts
The first step for a successful small business reputation strategy is to help SMBs gain visibility and control over what people are saying about them online.
“For marketing agencies, a good place to start is to help local businesses understand the importance of managing their brand’s online presence,” Stone says.
This is an education process that involves helping business owners:
- understand how review sites work and why they’re important
- use tools like Google Alerts to track mentions of their company
- claim their Google Business Profile (GBP) listing, Facebook and other social media accounts, and any specialty listing sites so a business can engage with customers and build their reputation
It’s also imperative agencies encourage SMBs to ask customers to leave reviews about their experience on popular review platforms and share positive online reviews across their online properties.
This can help local businesses further amplify customer testimonials and boost their online reputation, Stone says.
And of course, agencies should take the time to help local businesses understand how online reviews contribute to improving local search rankings.
How does Google determine local rankings?
Google’s algorithm incorporates three main factors for local search engine results:
- Relevance: Relevance refers to how well a local GMB profile matches what someone is searching for. The more complete and accurate a profile, the better.
- Distance: Distance considers how far each potential search result is from the location term used in a search.
- Prominence: Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business, from across the web, like links, articles, and directories.
Google specifically states: “Google review count and review score factor into local search ranking. More reviews and positive ratings can improve your business's local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices apply.”
But beyond quality and quantity, there are certain tricks our experts share to help local businesses understand how to extract maximum value from online reviews for SEO purposes later in the blog.
Principle 2 - Read each review
While some may see online reviews as a low marketing priority, Stone encourages agencies to help SMB clients understand their value.
“Most customers who leave reviews are trying to help you. And if they leave a negative review - they might alert you to a problem with your business that you may not have otherwise discovered,” Stone says.
“So try to be open-minded. Approach online reviews from a neutral standpoint and read each one.”
Principle 3 - Use reviews to improve business and customer outcomes
Stone adds a key plank of a small business reputation management strategy should be to observe customer feedback over time.
An easy way to do this is to collate negative and positive mentions on each area of an SMB’s operations.
As an example, are customers repeatedly complaining about waiting in line for too long at a local business, complaining about menu items or a particular staff member’s attitude?
Having a process to collate this information will allow SMBs to prioritize which issues to fix.
“SMBs should go back and look at themes that are appearing in their online reviews over time. Look at them all, review them with your staff and think about the root causes of those issues and how you can fix them,” Stone says.
Principle 4 - Address positive reviews, and use them for free marketing and SEO
Both Stone and Swami agree all positive reviews should be acknowledged with a thankful response.
Stone adds SMBs should tailor their responses to comments made by customers in online reviews.
“You don't want to repeat the same reply for all your positives. So highlight a specific thing the customer said in their online review in your response to make it more personal,” he says.
“For example, if the reviewer said ‘Andrea the cashier provided great customer service’ - acknowledge that and respond with ‘we really appreciate Andrea and what you said about her’.”
Swami says SMBs should take the opportunity to “sprinkle in extra marketing” into positive review responses to generate more business and boost their searchability.
An illustrative example
Let’s say a customer raves about pizza they had from Jacqui’s Italian Restaurant.
“The owner can thank them for that feedback and mention, for example, ‘we’re so glad you liked the pizza. Keep in mind we have half-price pizzas on Wednesday. We hope to see you again at Jacqui’s Italian Restaurant’,” Swami says.
In that example, the business name was also deliberately mentioned - a trick that can help boost the company’s Google rankings.
“The more times your business name is associated with a positive review, the more likely it is that those reviews will appear in a search result when someone searches that business name,” she says.
A reason to provide generic responses
But contrary to popular belief, Manis says businesses should address positive online reviews by providing a generic, short response.
Manis examined more than 20 million online reviews across different platforms with his colleagues as part of their research on this topic.
Agencies can work with local businesses to set up templates that require minimal tweaking to deal with positive reviews.
Surprisingly, we found that business owners need to be careful even when responding to positive reviews. While a simple ‘thank you’ had little impact, more customized responses — perceived as promotional and thus viewed as disingenuous — negatively affected future reviews.
Principle 5 - Delay responding to positive reviews
In another contrarian view, Manis says SMBs are better off by not responding to positive reviews straight away. But this depends on the platform.
His research suggests business owners and employees respond to positive reviews after they reach the second page of reviews on platforms like TripAdvisor, which shows 10 reviews per page.
“The delayed response allows the positive review to be buried behind newer reviews - all platforms in our sample automatically sort reviews from newest review to oldest review and are not bumped up after a review response,” Manis says.
“By doing so, business owners obtain any direct, positive effects from thanking a reviewer without negatively influencing future reviewers.”
Principle 6 - Address negative reviews right away
Manis, Stone, and Swami all agree negative reviews must be dealt with quickly and decisively.
“The faster a business owner responds to a negative online review, the faster the reviewer is appeased and prospective reviewers can see that the company is dedicated to solving customer complaints in a timely fashion,” Manis says.
Four-step process for addressing negative reviews
Stone’s agency recommends a four-step process for dealing with negative reviews as part of a small business reputation management strategy.
- Acknowledge the customer’s negative experience and apologize for it
- Take the matter offline right away by encouraging the reviewer to contact the business directly
- Solve the customer’s complaint by providing a solution
- Post a follow-up response about how you solved the problem to the customer’s initial negative review
When it comes to negative reviews, I see many businesses apologizing but never coming back with a solution. Talk to the customer, fix the issue and post another reply letting everyone know you solved it. That extra work will set you apart from the competition.
Don’t use the local business’s name in a negative review
Swami says SMBs should not include their business name in a negative review response as it can hurt SEO performance.
There is nothing worse than seeing a thread of comments from a business owner to a customer arguing back and forth about bad service. So take the conversation away from all of the eyes that can see it.
She also understands that while some operators are passionate about defending their business and employees from criticism, the worst thing they can do is argue with a customer on an online review platform.
She adds another element to Stone’s process: ask customers to edit or update their review - after the negative experience is resolved - so others know the SMB takes complaints seriously.
Principle 7 - Be realistic about ‘fake’ reviews
While fake reviews are an issue within reputation management, Stone says business owners often pass off negative reviews as phoney content because they become emotional when they get criticized.
“Even though fake reviews are out there, the chances that a business gets one is small. In addition, even if there is proof that a review is fake, getting any review removed is difficult and ultimately may not happen,” he says.
“Also, a lot of businesses will say a review is fake because ‘the person who left that review isn’t a customer.’ SMB’s should be careful here. Just because somebody has not transacted money with you doesn't necessarily mean they're disqualified from leaving a review.”
For example, many of us have had awful experiences when we called a business to inquire about a product and the person on the other end was unhelpful. That’s sufficient reason to leave a negative review.
Dealing with fake reviews
Stone stresses when it comes to fake reviews, agencies should never promise local businesses they can get a review deleted.
While there are agencies and services on Google that purport to “remove a Google review” with bold claims such as “100% deletion guaranteed”, Stone says the reality is no one has direct access to Google’s or other review platforms' website or staff to make this happen.
If a business really believes a review is fake or inappropriate, he says they should take steps to get that review removed.
“Do your due diligence and discuss it with your staff. Find out who interacted with that customer. And if you believe it's fake, report it,” Stone says.
“Most legitimate review sites will allow you to flag the review. And many more like Google allow businesses to email their customer service team to ask that a fake review be removed.”
Principle 8 - Undertake review marketing
Review marketing is an integral part of a small business reputation management strategy.
“If someone is providing positive feedback about an SMB, they should broadcast that to drive even more traffic,” Swami says.
She suggests simple tricks such as:
- Sharing online reviews on social media
- Embedding online reviews on a local business’s website
“All of these methods act as social proof your business can be trusted,” she says.
Principle 9 - Set aside time for online reviews
While some businesses, who are not yet supported by an agency, are understandably time-starved, Swami urges owners to set aside time to deal with online reviews.
“Have a plan or set aside a block of time for yourself or a member of your team to sit down for a couple of hours a week to respond to reviews and market those positive reviews,” she says.
Additionally, sourcing fresh reviews should be a key pillar of a small business reputation management strategy.
Creating a small business reputation management strategy is an essential element in how companies attract and retain customers in this day and age.
Agencies have an important educational role to play in helping businesses understand the importance of and shaping their review response techniques.
- Start off by helping local businesses claim their listings, setting up alerts and encourage them to set aside time to respond to reviews
- Get them to think about using reviews as a source of free feedback to improve customer and business outcomes
- Include additional marketing and state the business’s name in a positive review response, but don’t be overly promotional
- Take negative review interactions offline as quickly as possible, solve the customer’s problem and broadcast how you fixed it back onto the review platform