A recent federal appeals case is raising a debate about internet responsibilities regarding public negative content. At question is a website's freedom to publish anonymous comments. This is an online reviewsissue which should interest any business owner. Why?

Your ecommerce site is chugging along, with everything operating as it should. Then, suddenly, a friend informs you that a bad review of your site has appeared on Yelp.com, the social media review platform. Worse, someone posts a negative message about your service on your Facebook page. Tweets criticizing your business start appearing. You have clearly got an enemy out there.

There are numerous review sites on the internet where anonymous postings are allowed to appear with seemingly no consequences to the person who posts them. This is the essence of the recent ruling, which allowed a lawsuit against TheDirty.com to go forward, prompting Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and others to voice concern over their Constitutional rights. Businesses have been raising the alarm about this situation for years. Now the courts are getting involved.

The reviews are in, and they're not always good

While Google Places offers businesses the opportunity to flag certain postings as inappropriate or malicious, there are no guarantees that the posting will be removed. In fact, it probably won't. Yelp.com has a filter in place to weed out certain posting before they appear which can work both for, and against, businesses. They look for any reviews that come from people who sign on just to post a review, or who seem suspicious in other ways, such as:

  • Anyone not from the area where the business is located, or
  • Anyone who won't provide profile information

This means that just as many people who plant favorable reviews are as likely to be filtered out as those who post negative reviews. You can't just ask a friend or family member to give you a good review, any more than an ex-girlfriend can slam you online. Yelp, Google Places, and similar sites exist to help the consumer. A well written review, either pro or con, has greater weight with these sites than anything else. If you have a dispute with a customer, and they feel strongly enough about it to actually sit down and write out a complaint, you have to accept the consequences.

You aren't helpless, however. You have every right to respond to a negative review, which you absolutely must do as quickly as possible. In addition to affording you the opportunity to correct the situation, it demonstrates to your customers, and to the powers behind these review sites, that you have credibility. There are right and wrong ways to respond, but taking a professional and helpful stance on a review site will likely earn you new customers, if not the added respect of your established customers as well.

Don't take it personally

Even reviews posted about products your business offers can directly impact your bottom line. Your own website might include a plugin which allows consumers to leave reviews of items available through your online store. You can't expect to hear the good without the bad, especially from competitors. If a review isn't personal, but affects sales, how should you respond?

The most important approach is honesty. Identify yourself, and your experience with the product. Describe the assets of the product, especially any pros which the unflattering post failed to note. Be fair, by acknowledging any valid criticism. Most important of all, avoid being dogmatic. Let the reader know that the final judgment is theirs.

A few bad reviews can actually be a positive for your business. The public should rightfully be skeptical of any business with nothing but rave reviews. They look planted and phony. You simply can't please everybody, no matter how much good will you bring each day, and the public accepts this. Take a tactful, professional, and honest approach, and you will be rewarded.

Gary Locke
By Gary Locke

A semi-professional hyphenate and the Content Editor for CommonPlaces. He has enjoyed a long career in theater and multimedia, and still hopes to one day drive the Batmobile.

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