The business of looking good online
Stung by a bad online review, many business owners react in the worst possible way, said Internet consultant Adam Regiaba.
They immediately post a reply.
“I highly discourage any rebuttal,” said Regiaba, CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based Upfront Reputations, a player in the new and controversial field of online-reputation management. A rebuttal will only increase the likelihood of readers seeing the negative review, he said, because Google’s search algorithm responds favorably to additional postings.
“It’s fresh content. Google indexes it and (the review) will rank higher.”
Three-year-old Upfront Reputations is among a crop of companies that have sprung up in recent years to help business owners counter negative reviews on Yelp, Google, RipoffReport and other consumer ratings websites.
For the most part, reputation-management specialists try to gain prominent display on the Internet for positive information about a given company — often by posting reviews, blog entries and feature articles that might offset the financial impact of a bad review. Using search-engine-optimization techniques, reputation managers try to assure that the new, more-flattering material shows up higher on Google search lists than the poor reviews.
The field has been controversial. A number of reputation-management companies have been sued or fined for allegedly posting fraudulent reviews on behalf of clients. Even when positive reviews come from real customers, review sites such as Yelp consider them tainted if incentives were offered — if, for instance, the customer received a discount in exchange for posting an opinion. The “purest” reviews, said Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto, are those motivated only by the desire to share a personal experience with other consumers.
Regiaba said many companies are stung by bad reviews even while favorable information and opinions remain unseen. One way his company tries to change that, he said, is to interview a client at length, collecting relevant and interesting facts that can be conveyed positively.
That information is distributed across the Web in as many ways as possible to help it appear atop search-engine results, pushing bad reviews to the second, third or fourth page of search lists.
“We have content writers that create articles and post them on various websites and do search-engine optimization,” Regiaba said. Search-engine optimization involves using well-chosen key words and other measures to achieve a high ranking in searches. The goal is to share articles at “powerful websites,” Regiaba said. “Some are ours, some are pay-to-post sites. We back-link it, make it more relevant to Google.”
Eighty percent of Google users never go past the first page of a search, Regiaba said. That means damaging reviews are, in effect, hidden — a process that can take months. He describes it as “reverse-engineering” the Google search algorithm. “We can manipulate the search results,” he said.
The demand for such services has grown enormously, said Regiaba, who was a marketer at Time Inc. in New York before co-founding Upfront Reputations with longtime friend Arthur Atinizian, a former financial expert from Boston. In 2010, its first year, the startup brought in barely $30,000 in revenues, Atinizian said. This year, the number is expected to be $2.3 million.
Bitter ex-employees and smear campaigns by rivals are two major problems that clients hope to remedy, Regiaba said. Internet review sites, which by federal law are protected from liability for the opinions posted on them, have little incentive to remove harsh critiques because they make for compelling reading.
“People love the negative,” Regiaba said. “Viewers are likely to click on it. They go to the next page where there are more ads and more chances to click. Each page is like a fishing net” for advertising links.
“That’s the goal at the end of the day — to bury the bad stuff,” said Gary Hagins, president of Reputation Management Consultants, also of Irvine.
The trick isn’t to target the bad stuff directly, he said. “It’s making the good stuff better than the bad stuff,” which the company does by means similar to Regiaba’s: creating new, favorable content and posting it on newly built websites or on blogs. A company can enhance its presence online by moving its philanthropic programs, for example, to a separate site, giving Google fresh, quality content to find and display ahead of poor reviews.
Hagins, a University of California-Los Angeles graduate with a marketing background, said Reputation Management Consultants became a pioneer when it opened 10 years ago. While calling it “deplorable” that many companies, including some public-relations firms, create fake reviews, he noted that business owners need to become educated.
“If you have 99 happy customers and one angry customer, that one angry customer is usually the one who goes online and writes a review,” he said. “How do you counteract that?”
Without actually soliciting reviews, some company owners now post a note on their websites or email signature lines: “Review us on Yelp,” or “Check us out on Yelp.” Otherwise, the average customer will not think to write anything. “Just don’t go out of your way to tell people that (the review) should be positive.”
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While the field of reputation management is relatively new, it has changed significantly in recent years because Yelp, Google and other review sites are making it harder to counter a bad review by posting a positive one, said Craig Maloney, co-founder of EverythingOnline, a Costa Mesa, Calif., firm that also helps clients overcome poor ratings.
First-time reviewers on Yelp, for example, may have their critiques filtered out as suspicious. Filtered posts can be viewed only by clicking on a special link.
Helping a client to put up more positive reviews becomes something of a numbers game, Maloney said.
“There are companies out there that create fake people online,” he said. “It’s not something that my company does.”
Instead, EverythingOnline, which launched in 2010, takes what Maloney calls a “white hat” approach, helping clients reach out to happy existing customers. Some clients offer 5 percent off for a favorable post on Yelp or Google.
“Traditionally, a good customer won’t leave you a good review. It’s that one guy (who’s angry) who’s going to go … bad-mouth you,” Maloney said. Companies that fail to work with existing happy customers to develop a strong brand find themselves vulnerable to a scathing review. It’s far better, he said, to prepare ahead of time. “When you get that bad review, you already have 10 good ones,” Maloney said.
“The (review) websites don’t want you to incentivize people to give good reviews, but really, how are they going to know?” he adds. “If that’s what’s important for your business, (you) do it.
“Giving somebody $20 to $100 off an order, if it helps you capture two or three (new customers), you’re making a really good return. … It’s a branding tool. Reputation management is a branding tool.”
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Occasionally, review sites do learn about attempts to bolster online ratings. Edmunds.com, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based automotive website, filed a lawsuit in July against a reputation-management firm near Houston called Humankind Design Ltd., which operated GlowingReviews.com.
According to Edmunds, which attracts 18 million visitors a month, Humankind tried to register nearly 2,200 phony users on Edmunds to post reviews of car dealerships. Edmunds’ screeners, who examine the 4,000 to 5,000 reviews submitted to the website each month, discovered the effort this spring and traced the suspicious activity to Humankind, said Ken Levin, the review site’s general counsel.
In announcing the lawsuit, Edmunds issued a news release stating that Humankind “blatantly identifies 15 review sites on which it is prepared to post fake reviews; the list includes Google (Plus), Yelp, Foursquare, Citysearch and Local.Yahoo.com.”
The case was settled in August. Humankind agreed to never again submit reviews to Edmunds and to pay the ratings site’s legal fees, Edmunds announced.
In an interview, Humankind’s founder, Justin Anderson, conceded he made a mistake by trying to register fictitious users, but he insisted the reviews were real comments of real auto-dealership customers. Dealerships would sign up with Humankind and their customers would fill out comment cards that Humankind processed into reviews. Anderson described his role as a “facilitator” in making the opinions public.
“We never — not once — forged reviews or posted fake reviews,” Anderson said. “Edmunds was very much a bully. They had no idea what we did or how we did it. They just wanted some press out of it.”
Anderson said there is enormous pressure in the automotive industry to achieve good reviews. “I understand I have to take my licks for something I shouldn’t have done,” he said, but “even after we settled, (Edmunds) didn’t understand the concept. All they had to do was pick up the phone or shoot me an email and it would have been resolved within an hour. I’m bitter about that.”
Humankind has since retrenched and no longer offers reputation management, although the company still does search-engine optimization, Anderson said.
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The act of masking the source of a biased review and to make it seem legitimate is known as “astroturfing,” after the artificial groundcover. In September, in an operation dubbed “Operation Clean Turf,” New York state took action against 19 companies that allegedly paid freelance writers as far away as Bangladesh, Eastern Europe and the Philippines to write fake reviews on behalf of their clients. The companies, accused of false advertising and engaging in illegal and deceptive business practices, agreed to pay fines of more than $350,000, said New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
Two of the most prolific bad actors were reputation-management companies that crossed the line into illegal behavior, Schneiderman said.
Roger McManus, a spokesman for the National Association of Small Business Owners, also operates a reputation-management service known as Mpact Magic in Las Vegas. He said his three-year-old startup, which works with more than 50 review sites, is careful to operate within the law.
“We do not claim to remove negative comments or fix reputations,” McManus said. Instead, he approaches a client’s customers, asks if they’re happy and explores why. He then sends them a card. “We say, ‘Here’s what you said. Would you please go to any of these (review sites) and say it again?’ ”
©2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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