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Defending Your Reputation With a Strong Offense

Companies help businesses manage their online presence by posting stories and managing links

These firms cannot, by law, remove bad reviews

Source: Reputation.com

When a New York City dentist found last year that someone was slamming her practice on the web, she decided to fight back. To neutralize the poor reviews, she encouraged her patients to write their own reviews. While those more favorable contributions helped push down the negative ones for a while, they started to reappear a month later.

Since subscribing to Reputation.comabout six months ago, the negative reviews have become harder to find.

As this dentist (who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retribution from the person writing the bad reviews) will contend, it matters how a business is portrayed online. Nearly three-quarters of consumers said that they would most likely refuse to do business with a person or company if they found negative information about them online, according to a survey by Intelius, a site that lets people look up information about other people and businesses.

And look no further than Yelp for the rise of online consumer reviews. More than 22 million critiques of local businesses have been written on the website, which plans to go public next year.

But what happens if a former employee with an ax to grind posts a series of scathing reviews? Or what if your business has a bad day and a customer complains about it online?

A cottage industry of technology and online marketing firms has emerged to help businesses manage their online presence. Nearly 4 million small and medium businesses are expected to spend $3.1 billion on managing their online reputation by 2013, according to BIA/Kelsey.

“You can't just put your head in the sand and pretend it doesn't exist,” said Wil Reynolds, founder of Philadelphia’s Seer Interactive, which has helped businesses manage their online presence.

One of the most well-known firms in the industry is Reputation.com, formerly known as Reputation Defender. About two months ago, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company introduced a service that helps businesses monitor online reviews on sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and others. It costs from $19.95 to $299 per month, with customized packages for businesses in the hospitality and healthcare industries. On their dashboard, businesses can see how their reviews are tracking over time and encourage customers to review their business.

Reputation.com also has a separate service, which starts at $3,000 a year for small businesses, to help manage what consumers see when they search for the business on the web. Through a number of strategies — such as managing links and adding more details about the business on the web — it can help shift the search results so that a poor review isn’t necessarily the first item the consumer reads.

“Small business owners are very busy,” said Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com. “They're eager to have a presence of their own shaping.”

He added: “Small businesses know that not all business experiences are perfect. The Internet will give them them all kinds of feedback. But what they don't understand is why only the most negative reviews get published.”

"[Small businesses] don't understand why only the most negative reviews get published." -CEO, Reputation.com, Michael Fertik

Fertik estimates that Reputation.com, which received more than $67 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and others, has spent about $20 million in researching and developing its products over the past four years. The company — including at least seven scientists with doctorate degrees — has made "tens of millions of observations" about how search engines operate to develop its technology.

Note that Reputation.com — and most of its competitors — don’t go about trying to remove negative reviews, which are generally protected under the law. Reputation.com is developing technology to help identify fake reviews, but Fertik said that its tools are meant more to analyze the data from the web. “We are not writing reviews for our customers,” he said. “We are not making claims about removing reviews. That is not something we can do.”

Ultimately, small businesses need to be aware that it’s up to them to manage their reputation online and that they can take many of the basic steps on their own. Small businesses can use Get Listed to check websites they still need to appear on. They can establish themselves on Twitter and Facebook, where they can not only publish their side of the story, but also listen and interact with their customers.

“It’s up to a business owner to engage and to improve their business to prevent people from leaving negative feedback in the first place,” Reynolds said. “Take care of your customers.”

If a mistake is made, the best bet is to reach out and respond to the customer, added Kent Lewis, president and founder of Anvil Media and Formic Media, online marketing companies.

“The point is reputation management comes down to relationships and acknowledging the mistakes you made or refuting false accusations,” he said.

Katie Totoonchie, business and marketing director for Financial Profiles, a public relations firm, hired Reputation.com to help tweak the results when people searched for “Moira Conlon,” the firm’s founder and president. Because Conlon had been employed at a well-known public relations firm before starting her new company four years ago, the top results showed her previous employer, the Abernathy MacGregor Group, and not her new one.

Since subscribing to Reputation.com about six months ago, the results have shifted. Reputation.com created a biography of Conlon and posted it throughout the web. Now Conlon’s profile at her new firm appears at the top of a Google search, and her past position is ranked lower in the results, though they would like to see it even lower or on the next page.

“We’re kind of 25 percent of the way there, but we would like to see more progress,” said Totoonchie, who is hoping that eventually those results will move to page two of search results.

Of course, Reputation.com itself receives its share of complaints, and plenty of critics have taken to the Internet to air them. But the search results speak for themselves, Fertik said. "We've done a pretty good job keeping page one clean for ourselves," he said.



email: patricia.orsini@nbcuni.com

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