9 Strategies Merchants Can Use to Protect Their Reputations Online

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smalltownIt’s not uncommon for local merchants to go to the extreme to make a great first impression when customers arrive at their businesses — designing custom signage and selecting window displays with the utmost care — without giving a second thought to the first thing potential customers see when they search for their companies online.

By failing to protect their online reputations, small businesses are missing a huge opportunity. Thirty-seven percent of consumers now use the Internet to find local businesses at least one time per month, and 85% read online reviews when deciding where to spend their money locally, according to a 2013 survey by BrightLocal. Here are nine strategies that merchants can use to protect their reputations and make a great first impression on the web.

1. Get a website — seriously. “Surprisingly, more than half of U.S. small businesses and 60% of U.K. small businesses don’t have a website — but 85% of consumers use the Internet to try and find you. It doesn’t have to be daunting; there are plenty of free and low-cost templates to make web design virtually do-it-yourself. You will have to maintain it and keep it current.” (Leslie Hobbs, Reputation.com)

2. Focus on what makes you unique. “Sites should clearly display both the basic information about your business (phone number, address, hours of operation, etc.), what makes your business unique (certifications, years of experience, etc.), and any special offers or discounts that might be attractive to customers. Examples of your work and customer testimonials are great things to include, as well. And of course, keep it updated. Nothing worse than showing offers that are expired, services that you don’t offer anymore, or out of date addresses or phone numbers.” (Brooks McMahon, Marchex)

3. Set up online assets that you control. “When a business doesn’t have a strong online presence, any negative customer review or online complaint takes center stage. Having a company website is the first step, followed by creating additional web assets that will link to your main site. There are a variety of free and paid assets where you can list your business, such as Gravatar, LookupPage, about.me and others. Good online reputations consist of a selection of online assets (websites, social media profiles, etc.) that you control and promote in Google’s search results. When you control the first page of Google’s search results, it is much less likely that unwanted information will appear about your company. (Josh Brajtman, Veribo)

4. Claim your profiles. “Claim your profiles on review sites like Google+ Local, Yahoo Local, Yelp, CitySearch, InsiderPages, YellowPages, MerchantCircle, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and UrbanSpoon. Claim or create a local business profile on Facebook — ratings and comments on local Facebook pages are becoming more popular. Claiming these sites allows you to respond to online reviews publicly. If you haven’t claimed a profile, then you can’t respond to try to resolve an issue or thank somebody for their feedback. Thanking somebody for their feedback goes a long way, to the person who wrote the review and the potential customers reading the reviews.” (Lee McNiel, ReviewPush)

5. Ask for online reviews. “Today’s consumer is empowered with the tools of the Internet and search. They are skeptical about what they read and turn to their peers for information. Use communication channels to encourage customers to share their positive experiences or opinions. Of course, you can’t control what people say about you, and negative reviews are bound to pop up. The biggest mistake would be ignoring these. Show that you are attentive to consumer grievances by publicly responding to negative reviews, owning up to your mistakes, or gently disproving false accusations. When you take a proactive stance to respond to customer feedback — both good and bad — you show that you are listening and establish trust and respect from present and future customers.” (Nathan Labenz, Stik)

6. No news is not good news. “Companies sometimes assume ‘no news is good news’ — that if their search results yield nothing, that’s OK. But, it’s a huge missed opportunity. The world is digital and consumers expect to find you online. When they can’t, it raises eyebrows and causes them to wonder why you’re not there.” (Leslie Hobbs, Reputation.com)

7. Respond to challenging comments. “A single bad review can cost a car dealership up to 30 potential buyers visiting their lot each month. By managing their online reputation they are not only maximizing their visibility, but they are monitoring both the ‘pre-purchase’ (those looking at reviews before they decide which dealership to visit) and ‘post-purchase’ (those posting their experiences after the sale decision) cycle of local car shoppers. DealerRater is the most important site for car dealers. I recommend, despite some people’s misgivings, that owners monitor and respond to challenging comments by posting an attempt to apologize for and correct any perceived poor experiences.” (Brent Cushman, Chatmeter)

8. Weigh the pros and cons of automated response services. “There are pros and cons for services that reply to reviews on your behalf. They’ll stay on top of your reviews and may be able to respond to them in a more levelheaded way. But, consumers can sometimes sniff out these canned responses and it defeats the purpose of responding. Businesses need a tool to monitor all of their reviews regardless of whether they are posted on a review site, a personal blog, or Facebook (especially with Graph Search getting wider distribution). Business owners are busy running their business, so using a tool to monitor reviews can be a more cost-effective and time-effective solution.” (Emad Fanous, YellowBot)

9. Turn your employees into brand ambassadors. “Every person in connection to your company is also a potential spokesperson. One of the biggest mistakes a business can make is focusing all of its attention on gaining outside media and forgetting about internal forces. Give your employees something to promote, such as photos for sharing or hashtag conversations to join. Since you cannot control what people do on social media, the most important step is to make sure your employees are happy and love their jobs. If you treat your employees right, their support and loyalty will follow. This is especially important for businesses in hyperlocal markets, where your employees may very well be directly connected to your customers.” (Nathan Labenz, Stik)

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Miles is an associate editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.