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The customer is always right. We’ve all heard that old cliché, time and time again, and by now most of us have likely succumbed to its conventional wisdom. There is an exception to every rule, however — and the prevalence of online reviews is a big one.

For all of the many advantages the Internet provides, it comes with its fair share of setbacks, and one of the big downsides of digital communication is that consumers can now post reviews of any company they want — and they can say whatever they want, as well. Meanwhile, most of us have out smartphones with us at all times, so if we’re on vacation or simply driving through our home town and spot a new restaurant or store we’d like to try, obtaining a few quick online reviews is never too difficult.

The Wages of Bad Reviews

Not only are online reviews increasingly common, thanks to smart phones as well as sites like Angie’s List, TripAdvisor.com, and Yelp, but they are also increasingly influential. Online reviews are essentially the new “word of mouth.” Consumers trust them implicitly, and the average consumer would never make a major purchase without consulting some online reviews, first.

What this means is that, if your company receives good reviews across the board, then you’re fine. If there’s a single negative review of your company, on a site like Yelp, then it could prove ruinous. A bad review can lead to lost customers, diminished sales, and a glut of refund requests or chargebacks. It can even inspire more consumers to pen more bad reviews, making your brand’s online reputation spiral out of control.

Think about it: A consumer is seeking a new dentist, and he or she sees your dental practice advertised in the Yellow Pages. He or she then takes to Google and conducts a search — only to see that the first search result listing is a Yelp review, where a former patient gave you one star, complaining about your staff’s level of service, or your own bedside manner. Meanwhile, Google is displaying an ad for your closest competitor — a dental practice with a full five stars. Which of these two practices do you think will flourish — and which will all but fade into obscurity?

Protecting Yourself Against Online Reviews

What, then, is a business owner to do? The first and most important thing to remember is that you cannot prevent people from posting bad reviews, nor can you erase or undo those reviews once they are published. Negative reviews could come at any time — from real customers or from disgruntled ex-employees, even from your business rivals. All you can do is be ready for them.

The second important thing to remember is that a negative review is really only a problem if it’s on the first page of Google search results. Some 90% of Internet search engine users never click past the first page of search results for any given query. If a consumer Googles your name and the only negative review is on page 5, well, then that review is unlikely to ever be seen by anyone. It’s a non-issue.

The way to protect yourself against these bad reviews, then, is suppression. You can’t stop bad reviews from happening, but you can keep them off the first page of search results listing. The way you do this is by essentially blanketing the first page or two of Google and Bing results with positive information about your brand.

Start by snatching up the best online real estate — YourBrandName.com, .org, .net, and so on. Try to put some content on those pages, simply taking about how great your company is — and refresh or update the content as often as you can. Just as important is maintaining regular activity on Facebook and other social networks. You effectively need to supply the search engines with as much positive, brand-enhancing content as possible in order to keep those negative reviews suppressed!

What Happens When Bad Reviews Appear?

Sometimes, despite all of your best efforts to the contrary, you may run into some negative consumer feedback. It’s important to know how to respond to these reviews productively — and, when you should simply refrain from responding at all.

For positive reviews, a polite and prompt response is a good idea. It helps you establish yourself as friendly and personable, and it generates goodwill for your brand. Even in cases of genuinely constructive feedback, a response is typically a good idea.

For bad or outright unreasonable reviews, however, the best tactic is to resist the urge to respond at all. Part of this is because responses to these reviews often come across as angry or hasty, and that’s not going to help with your reputation management concerns. More to the point, though, responding to negative reviews lends them more traction within the search engine itself. It’s better to double down on your suppression efforts, and let that positive content do its job!

Rich Gorman is a serial internet entrepreneur with an extensive background in direct marketing, affiliate marketing, and online reputation management. In addition, Rich operates the official blog for the Direct Response industry where he shares his thoughts on Direct Response Marketing.

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