Online review sites have skyrocketed in popularity in the past couple of years, with more customers than ever turning to sites like Yelp and Angie’s List before patronizing a business. After a slow start in the late 1990s with little-used sites like Epinions, online review sites are now becoming a viable part of the online marketplace. Businesses must now consider online reviews as a critical part of the media mix. Unlike other types of media however, review sites can often be the adversaries of small business. This is due, in part, to their prominence in search engine rankings and the anonymity with which allegations can be directed.

It has been said that misery loves company. If that is true, then online review sites have created an entire corporate community that commiserates with one another. As great as online review sites can be for consumers, 3Ci observes three major reasons online review sites are causing problems for most businesses:

  1. The business has no recourse. Most online review sites provide a “free speech” approach to posted content. A key difference within the free speech discussion continues to be the anonymity that online reviews and comments can provide. Unlike other media, online comments and opinions can be posted without truthfully identifying the party offering the information. If a business finds negative content on one of these sites, attempts to have the content removed usually prove futile since webhosts and their Internet Service Providers take no responsibility for the actual content. Responding to bad reviews is just as unproductive, and in fact may even backfire. If a business tries to explain the situation by responding with an online comment, it can appear defensive and potentially incite a response from the complainant that is far worse than the initial bad review. If a business is gracious and apologetic, it can appear as though they are admitting fault.
  2. Competitors and former employees post anonymously. As mentioned above, since most online review sites allow reviewers to post without any identity validation, fake reviews can easily be posted by a disgruntled former employee, an ex-spouse, a spurned business partner, or even the business’s direct competition. Since many of these online reviews are posted anonymously, in many cases a business owner is unable to contact the “unhappy customer” to try to rectify matters. While you may have a good idea of who might have written untrue information, it is very difficult to prove.
  3. Reviews are posted out of order. Instead of posting the most recent review first, the most extreme reviews often remain highlighted indefinitely on online review sites. This means when a potential customer reviews a businesses online results, the first reviews they see may be those that received the lowest number of stars and/or the highest number of stars, which may prevent consumers from getting an honest, overall view of a business. Additionally, this means the company has no hope of negative reviews disappearing over time beneath pages of good reviews on online review sites.

As online review sites continue to rise in popularity with consumers, the realization that a well-planned ability to get customers having a positive experience to acknowledge it online and the ability to defuse and manage negative reviews are both dynamics that can determine the success or failure of a business.

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