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How to Handle Online Reviews

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    Like it or not, we live in an age where everyone has an Internet connection, an opinion, and an eagerness to combine the two instantly via Twitter or services like Yelp. As a business owner, it can be difficult to know how much to concern yourself with outlets like these -- specifically, what to do about negative or factually inaccurate writeups from customers.

    To get a clearer idea, I gave Yelp's director of business outreach, Luther Lowe, a call. He offered some time-tested approaches to handling less favorable reviews, explained how Yelp's infrastructure weeds out needlessly negative blurbs, and how the site is useful even if you disable reviews.

    What are the most common issues you hear about from businesses?

    Luther Lowe: Usually it's people wondering what Yelp does to help protect business owners from what they feel are unfair reviews. I think there's this assumption that it's an online-review site so people can write whatever they want. To a degree that's true but what a lot of folks don't realize, I think, is that we have review guidelines which are enforced by human beings and sub-policed by the business and consumer community.

    The second thing is there's an algorithmic process in the background that examines how established every user is on the site everyday. Based on that, governing whether their reviews appear on a certain business' page. That's curbed effectively by the review filter.

    Sometimes legitimately written accounts may not live on a business page because of this filtering process. It does create some confusion and frustration among the business community. A counter-intuitive piece of advice about this is we actually discourage the solicitation of reviews. We don't think it's a good idea to set a laptop in front of all your customers and ask them to write five-star reviews.

    It's kinda sleazy on the outset, but also most of those reviews are filtered out. It's tough for us to design software that can tell the difference between someone who's writing fake five-star reviews and an establishment owner encouraging his customers to write five-star reviews.

    Given that most shrewd customers are going to be wary of hyperbolic reviews in one direction or another, why do business owners keep doing this?

    There's this mentality among small-business owners that referrals are king. There's sort of this weird logical leap that you can somehow throw gasoline on that or do it in a real non-organic way. I'm not saying that the overall majority of business owners are doing this, but even something as benign as sending an e-mail asking for feedback to be on Yelp -- the thing is that whether it's the laptop or that, everyone has a different definition of what it is to solicit reviews. A review site isn't like a comment card or a wall where you slap up your favorite letters from your customers. We're in the business of serving consumers, and it'd be useless if consumers don't trust it.

    If there's some strange outlier review and you click on that review, you can see in a very straightforward way the rating distribution of what this person is writing about. You can figure out right away, "Well, this gal has written 15 reviews, and 14 of them are one-star reviews." She's just a negative Nancy; it's not that she had a negative experience. She's just a negative person, and customers are savvy enough to figure that out. As user contributes information to Yelp, they're creating information about themselves.

    So what are the best practices for business owners on Yelp?

    A few years ago we launched a free suite of tools, biz.yelp.com. We're seeing a trend among consumers where websites aren't really that important anymore. "Why would I go to your website and see what you have to say about yourself when I get an aggregate idea of what the general public thinks?" By having a rich presence on Yelp you're able to authenticate the information on your business page.

    Another feature is the ability to do special offers. Maybe Tuesdays are slow? You can put a time-sensitive offer on your business page, like, for a free dessert. These are just basic steps you can take that take less than 30 minutes.

    And then there's the reviews. For what it's worth, you don't have to have reviews on Yelp to build out a rich profile. Some businesses like psychiatry and plastic surgery don't get as many reviews. You're not going to have people write this review, "Oh, I had this big ugly nose, and they made my nose look great." People don't really write reviews like that. But psychiatrists can use Yelp to get new patients and in fact they do, because they can say where they studied -- that information can drive business.

    What if you opt to have reviews?

    If you do have reviews, and you're trying to be as utilitarian as possible, and you're trying to improve your reputation? I recommend sorting by the most negative reviews first, and firing off private diplomatic responses. "Hey, thanks so much for writing about our business. I'm deeply sorry you didn't have a five-star experience." Then inject whatever situational thing that applies. Invite them back in to give you one more shot and tell them to reach out in person.

    First of all if the review is kinda just out there and weird, you've turned the other cheek with this really disarming, polite response that reminds the individual there's a human being on the other side of the review. You can actually recover that customer in this process. This happens all the time.

    How effective would you say that is?

    It's so subjective because some business owners are really really good at this. You shouldn't be pushy or be explicit about it and say, "Oh, come in, we'll give you a free meal if you take down that review." You don't want to sound like you're trying to pay them off, because that can backfire, and they can do a screenshot and put in their blog, and suddenly you're in the weekly alternative paper because they're goosing your reputation. I've seen that happen.

    The other category of responding is the public response. That one's a little bit different. I wouldn't do this unless you sent a private one first. If there's something fragrantly inaccurate within a review and they don't respond? Wait three days and post a public response setting the record straight. Be brief, to the point, diplomatic, and address the inaccuracy. It ups the ante to that person there's a human being on the other end of this review -- and they have a greater incentive to change their review. And also, you're responding to the community and showing them you're on top of customer service.