Back in the day, before the advent of the Internet and the computer age, I had the dubious honor of receiving a call from a local businessman inquiring about the cost of our marketing services. It didn’t take me long to realize that his attitude was dripping with condescension. All of 23 years old, short on patience and big on insolence, I had the audacity to accuse him of just “shopping.” Well! Livid is hardly a strong enough word to describe his reaction at having been caught in the act, an insult for which he threatened to report me to the Better Business Bureau.
Fast forward to today, such a conversation would never have elicited that kind of response from me. First of all, experience has taught me that the customer is king, no matter how pompous his conduct. Secondly, shopping has become such a reality of consumer behavior that entire fleets of businesses exist just for the purpose of price comparison. Furthermore, the threat of a poor business rating has put the fear of God into every breathing business owner, the viral repercussions of which can totally wreak havoc on a company which took years to build.
If running a business in a bad economy weren’t difficult enough, now the daily looming prospect of a bad online review makes it even more intimidating. Terrorizing may be a more accurate description.
After all, unlike days of old, you cannot ignore a bad online review. The longer you procrastinate, the more damaging it becomes. How so? A lack of response is admittance of guilt. You must respond. And, the sooner, the better.
It’s a Whole New Ball Game
Ever since the U.S. federal government passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996, free speech on the Internet has been encouraged because websites which publish user reviews are immune from liability. This includes such sites as Google, Yahoo, Yelp, Angie’s List, Consumer Reports, Better Business Bureau, and Citysearch; not to forget, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, among many others. Unless the review is proven to be a blatant lie, most sites will protect the reviewer’s rights and the review’s availability. So much for having the review removed.
If you’ve received a bad review, your first step should be to confront the bad online reviewer in as courteous and professional a manner as possible. The purpose of doing this is to defend your business practices, explain your position and convey to all other readers that you are an upstanding business professional with only the best of intentions. Usually this type of response contrasts dramatically with the reviewers’ typically angry accusations which sometimes make them seem unreasonable, hysterical and absurd in their claims.
Maintaining your composure under the duress of such severe criticism is highly recommended since the bad review will likely remain online for a long time, regardless of your complaints about its inaccuracy. We all know that you cannot please all the people all the time and we all have bad days now and then. Gaining the respect of all the other readers is your biggest goal under the circumstances. In fact, Angie’s List states that it can actually work to your advantage, when certain kinds of prospective customers decide they like your attitude when faced with a problem. They may feel more comfortable doing business with someone who can handle adversity with the same aplomb as success.
Do You have a Legal Leg to Stand On?
If you feel the review is a complete fabrication meant to denigrate your business, you have the option of suing the reviewer for defamation. Certainly you can hire an attorney who specializes in such matters, but establishing which cases can proceed to a successful outcome remains a daunting challenge. There are many circumstances in which legal “privilege” allows someone to make certain claims without risk of committing a crime. If the review was posted anonymously, you will need time to investigate its source and you only have one year in which to bring your case forward. Those are big hurdles to overcome.
And what exactly constitutes defamation? Encompassing both libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation), this crime is defined as the false accusation of illegal, immoral or unethical conduct which results in damage to the victim’s reputation. If the accusation is the truth, if it is someone’s opinion, or if it is allowed because of legal privilege, defamation has not occurred. Since most user reviews are considered opinion, being able to sue for defamation is a rare situation indeed. Yet, when it is determined that the reviewer deliberately manufactured lies to intentionally defile your reputation, successful judgments can result in multi-million-dollar awards for damages, as exemplified by two recent cases: one for $11.3 million in Florida in 2006 and one for $13.8 million in Texas in 2012.
Absorbing the Shock of a Bad Review
As a case in point, one of my clients is a landscape designer who has been the recipient of ten reviews by Angie’s List members, all of which have earned him a straight “A” average. Consistently among 10 different members, all of whom spent a range of $14,000 to $125,000 on various large projects over a couple of years (an average of $60,000 each), comments are emphatically positive, with raves about his performance, customer service and high quality work. All would recommend him highly and would themselves hire him again. What makes Angie’s List reviewers more believable than many others is that they are identified with their real names and addresses. His outstanding reputation among members has influenced Angie’s List to bestow its highest honor on him this year, its “Super Service” Award.
Then, one Sunday morning, a terrible review arrived with a rating of “F”! To say we were shocked would be putting it mildly. However, this review was not about his actual work. It was about his not showing up for a scheduled appointment to discuss a possible project. The reviewer spent many a sentence describing how poorly he had been treated and how disappointed he was in my client’s performance. Then, another review of the same type appeared soon after that with the same rating and same problem. When questioned about these two cases, my client mentioned he was suffering from Lyme Disease which runs rampant in our tick-laden area, an occupational hazard he faces on a daily basis. He also denied both charges, saying he had shown up at both appointments after driving long distances to find it was the customers who were not there.
While I did not witness these two issues, I have to give my client the benefit of the doubt based on all the excellent reviews he has received. My first thought was that perhaps these reviewers were actually friends of his competition who had been enticed to post bad reviews to hurt my client’s business. I suggested that he contact each of these people to try to rectify their experiences perhaps with an offer of a discount or a free service if they would remove the bad review. However, I worried that such a tactic could lead to their blackmailing him with the threat of posting another bad review in the future. Plus, all those good clients who had paid full price would stand the risk of insult. Besides, isn’t it illogical to reward a negative reviewer with a better price?
A Better Way to React
Although my client declined the idea of calling these two people, he had the presence of mind to contain his anger and post a polite reply to each of their reviews explaining his side of the story and offering another chance to meet.
Since I handle all of his online social media, his website and his overall marketing, my client asked me to contact Angie’s List to discuss how to remove these two dishonest reviews. Although Angie’s List asserts that they will intervene by asking reviewers whether they could possibly have reviewed the wrong business, unless the reviewer himself is willing to remove the review, it will stand untouched. Angie’s List also states that reviews that do not involve business services per se, have little effect on an overall rating.
Still, my client feels abandoned by Angie’s List to whom he pays thousands of dollars for an advertising campaign in both their printed and online magazine. In fact, he is constantly receiving e-mails from them showing his demoted presence in these vehicles because of these two “F” reviews, which indicate “poor member communication.” Their solution? More advertising expenditures! In comparison to what members pay for the privilege of posting and reading other member comments, a mere $10/year, my client is exasperated about such inequitable treatment. Ironically, Angie’s List has been publicly criticized for “favoring” its advertisers by boosting their rankings on their site for monetary purposes. If my client were to respond favorably to these recent e-mails, that certainly would be appear to be true. But in his present state of disgruntlement, just the opposite seems to be true. Angie’s List seems to be penalizing my client by obscuring his advertising prominence under the guise of shielding members from a less-than-perfect communicator.
Angie’s List also pointed out that since the two “F” reviews have been published, there has been no decline in his number of e-mailed requests for quotes from members through his Angie’s List account. Granted, he can hardly dispute the overwhelming power of all his excellent Angie’s List reviews. In fact, he sees their influence in the constant emails through his website, clicks on his Google AdWords advertising and phone calls from new prospective clients. Although it is difficult for him to accept this unfair set of circumstances, he must soldier on, day in and day out, in his extremely demanding, enormously tiring occupation, maintaining a positive attitude and doing his best for every new client he serves.
The Best Recourse for the Future
It is a well-known fact that the best resolution to negative online reviews is to constantly provide fresh positive content. Already, new glowing reviews by other Angie’s List members have appeared with straight “A” ratings on expensive projects which has lessened the impact of the two embarrassing “F” reviews. If favorable comments greatly outnumber those to the contrary, the obvious conclusion will be that you have a business of reliable value. While we would all like to be perfect, few things in life really are. So, if you get a couple of negative reviews, take heart. All is not lost.
A Word to the Wise
Plus, a few new developments are interesting to take into account. Businesses are not the only targets of criticism online these days. Customers are also being scrutinized for inappropriate conduct and behavior on a number of new sites. And anyone who thinks they can say whatever they want without risk of prosecution is greatly mistaken. Reviewers who post anonymous comments identifiable only by a nebulous username are completely traceable using technologies that source their computers’ IP addresses. That means that what you say online can hurt you to the tune of thousands, if not millions of dollars in legal damages if your lies are ruled a crime of defamation. And whether negative reviewers’ names and addresses are evident for all to see or not, people should weigh the risks of criminal retaliation by a berserk business owner seeking revenge in much the same way that road rage kills out on the open highway. One woman commented online that she would refrain from reviewing anyone on the Internet for fear of physical retribution to her home, her family, her reputation or her life. That is certainly a sobering thought when you read some of the supposedly anonymous comments people post thinking they are beyond reproach.
Black hat SEO is a well-known practice these days with a bundle of sneaky methods to trick search engine bots. Since algorithms in the world of search are ever-changing and dynamic, in part to weed out the scammers doing black hat tactics, it’s a hard game to win.
The same is true for black hat social media. By definition, a black hat strategy is anything that focuses on cheating the written and unwritten rules of a given system. In social media, the name of the game is engagement. Black hat tactics, then, aim to fake or purchase such appearances, and some methods go far into the realm of dishonesty. But do these tactics have any long term benefit? You’d be surprised how tricky some of these can be, and chances are, you’ve tried or at least considered trying at least one black hat social media method.
Black Hat Tactic #1: Buying Your Audience
The first one on this list is an obvious one; buying followers or fans for one of the major social media sites. When you stop and consider this tactic, it’s borderline ridiculous, and clearly doesn’t work. Social media is not about the number of followers you have; it’s the level of engagement that audience has with your content. If you buy a list full of fake profiles, those “people” will never buy, support, or even like one single product or post.
Think about it in terms of popularity. If you have to pay a bunch of folks to pretend you’re lovable and worthy of an entourage, it’s not genuine, and these folks have little to no value. The same is true if you’re buying social media popularity. There’s no value if people aren’t truly interested in what you have to say.
Worse yet, if the public becomes aware of your fake followers, it can be devastating. And finally, purchased lists are often wrought with scammers and hackers, and they can wreak havoc on your marketing efforts, pillaging the few genuine followers you may have amassed. When it comes to this black hat method, the message is clear: don’t do it.
Black Hat Tactic #2: Evil, Awful Comment Spam
Spammers who comment en masse on articles and posts are the bane of the internet. They clutter up otherwise legitimate comments with horrible, lying posts like “Oh, great content here, check out my stuff and buy something!” They pretend to care about the topics discussed, then quickly attempt to drive traffic to whatever horrendous site they represent.
I’m sure if you’re reading an article about why black hat tactics are useless, you already know this is a vile and evil practice. Please also understand that clicking these links only encourages such despicable behavior. This, therefore, is another no-brainer: content spam and those who click on their links must be stopped.
Black Hat Tactic #3: Facebook Promotions Sneakily Placed in Feeds
Here’s where things get a bit dicey. Prepare for blurred lines.
Brands are all over Facebook these days, and often are guilty of black hat methods, whether or not they are aware of the offense. Technically speaking, promotions on any Facebook page are prohibited unless submitted through Apps on Facebook, through a Canvas Page or a Page App.Facebook’s User Terms make it very clear that any other promotional attempt is not kosher. And yet it happens all the time. Is this the worst offense? No, not in the least, but it can get your brand in hot water with the social giant if you’re caught red-handed. If you choose to roll the dice, so be it; but first make sure you’re educated so you can weigh the risks.
Black Hat Tactic #4: Promotional Facebook Cover Photos
Since Facebook is the most popular place for black hat social media, #4 lands squarely here as well. This one involves profile photos, or cover photos for brands. Technically speaking, the rules state these cannot be promotional in nature; they are supposed to simply communicate your brand. Very little text is allowed – Facebook (and its users) does not want the site to look like a glorified billboard, and their rules of engagement reflect that tenfold.
You can, however, be crafty. The main thing here is to never advertise a specific sale or promotion, but you can alert users to a new feature or product – either with limited text or photographs. For example, you can post a cover photo that says “Coming on March 15th!” enticing folks to uncover what the big reveal is. You cannot post “Coming on March 15th, a 25% off everything sale!” on your cover photo – but be creative with your promotions and everybody wins.
Black Hat Tactic #5: Lies, Lies, Lies
Remember the recent story about KFC defaming a little girl mauled by a pit bull? By all accounts, that story appears to be a hoax. The family of the three-year-old dog attack victim hit social media hard with accusations that a KFC near their home asked the girl to leave because her scars disturbed their customers. After an in-depth investigation by an independent source, the Laurel Leader-Caller in Laurel, Mississippi, it was shown that the “facts” put forth by the family kept shifting and changing. Even the exact location of the KFC flip-flopped, and they finally landed on a location that had been closed for some time.
In the meantime, the family raised over $135,000, including $30k pledged by KFC when they first thought their employees may have been guilty of discrimination. Regardless, the dog attack was real, and ideally, the little girl got some much needed help. But the lies spread via social media certainly caused unimaginable damages to KFC’s brand.
The moral of the story: blatant disregard for honesty is as black hat as it gets. If this Mississippi family were a brand or company, they would be out of business by now.
Just like black hat SEO, black hat social media holds little to no long-term successes. Your best bet in both arenas is to stick to what you should know best: honestly representing the true value of your company. Social media is indeed your company’s friend; just don’t use it to try to scam your customers.
I’ve had my fair share of conversations with eCommerce site owners. The two issues that seem to always come up during the course of our discussions are search engine optimization (SEO) and sales. Frankly, some get it and some just don’t.
Truthfully, most of what you read online regarding SEO and conversions is outdated misinformation that has simply been repeated (inaccurately most of the time) from someone else. There are precious few actual authorities that you should follow. This is one reason so many eCommerce sites have a hard-fought battle when it comes to getting rankings and converting shoppers into buyers.
Allow me to offer five tips (based on serious mistakes I’ve seen other eComm sites make) that can help you boost sales and search rankings.
1 – Take Some Time to Plan
During all those conversations I’ve had with eCommerce site owners, another issue also typically comes to light: lack of planning. There are some that take the necessary steps to research keywords, outline a logical navigation structure and determine a sales flow from site entry to the buy now button. Kudos to you.
I’ve said it a hundred times before: Planning isn’t sexy, but the results it brings are.! If good SEO and high conversions are two of your priorities, you’ll want to take time to look over:
- Keywords that cater to every phase of the buying process (see No. 2)
- Logical site navigation that intuitively leads shoppers to where they need to be
- Cross-sells and upsells that flow effortlessly with the products your visitors are looking for
- Copy that unquestionably lets customers know why they should buy from you and not the 1,000 other sites selling the same things
- Elements that lend to your site’s trust and credibility and help shoppers to feel confident buying from you
2 – Choose Keywords that Drive the Sales Process
Keyword research for eCommerce sites is a bit of a different animal than doing research for – say – a services-based site. Buyer intent plays a huge role in the keywords you select for the various types of pages on your site.
For instance, did you know that the more specific a keyphrase is, the closer the searcher is to making a buying decision? Putting very broad keyphrases on a product page typically isn’t the best idea. Those types of terms are better suited to your home page, which attracts general traffic and then directs it to the next phase in the buying process.
Not familiar with the buying process?
There can be numerous steps, but in its most basic form, the buying process has four steps: need recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives and decision-making.
During the need recognition phase, shoppers are trying to decide what they need/want. Maybe they have a problem (leaky faucet, something for kids to carry books in at school, etc.). They understand the need and have thought of a few things that might solve the problem (a new faucet, parts for the faucet, a backpack for kids, a book bag, etc.).
Here you’d use broad keyphrases in your copy and content marketing such as “Moen faucet parts” or “back to school bags.”
In the information search phase, shoppers investigate the options they thought of and look for ones they might not have known about. They are trying to create a list, per se, of all the items that might solve their problem/want. Category pages tend to show up well for these types of searches because they offer groups of products/solutions.
Once customers begin to evaluate all the products they’ve found, they begin typing in searches such as “Moen faucet reviews,” “denim vs. leather satchel book bag” or “Lands’ End backpack comparison.” Having this content on your site can be very helpful in returning your pages to customers who are very close to making a buying decision.
Finally, when the shopper has decided what to purchase, s/he begins to compare stores and prices, look for coupons, etc. Precise model or style names and numbers as well as keyphrases that deal with sales or coupons are best used on product pages or in content marketing efforts designed to drive traffic to a particular item.
3 – Differentiate Your Site from Other Resellers
Think of your own shopping experience. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Your MP3 player starts acting weird and only playing out of one channel. It’s time to buy a new one before this thing dies completely. What do you do?
You go through a buying process pretty similar to the one described above. And, then you look for the cheapest price. That’s how most shoppers go about it, too. Other than low price, how can you set yourself apart from all the thousands of other sites that sell MP3 players? This is a vital question for eCommerce resellers to answer. Otherwise, you’re doomed to constantly fight the price battle.
I know what you’re thinking… customer service! Yes, that’s important, but here’s the thing about customer service being your differentiator… most people will never experience your customer service unless something goes wrong during the sales/shipping process.
Give some serious thought to what you can offer that sets you apart. This article from my copywriting blog will offer some ideas.
4 – Write Unique Copy (for Two Reasons)
I know that creating original copy for all your products can be a big challenge depending on the size of your site. But think of it this way: When you have the exact, same product descriptions and other content on your site that every other eCommerce reseller has, you are training visitors to look only at your price.
Unless you give them something that others aren’t giving them, the only differentiator is how much the item costs.
Secondly, if you’re using identical copy as other resellers, Google will have a harder time judging the value of your site. Contrary to popular belief, there is no duplicate content “penalty,” but Google does filter out web pages that don’t offer some sort of unique value.
If you must use manufacturer-provided (aka canned) copy, add unique value somewhere else on the page. Enable customer reviews or Q&A. Add care and use instructions or demo videos. There are dozens of ways to add value to your product pages to offset the use of duplicate descriptions.
5 – Reduce Friction to Increase Sales
Another issue common to ecommerce sites is elements or processes that add friction. You want the sales flow and checkout processes to be as smooth as possible. The more questions or hesitation a shopper has while on your site, the higher likelihood she/he will abandon her/his cart and go elsewhere.
Consider your own shopping experiences for a moment. You get to a site, find what you think you’ll like and add it to your cart. Then – about the time you’re prompted to give your credit card information – the questions start to fill your mind:
- How much is shipping?
- What if it doesn’t fit?
- Am I going to unknowingly sign myself up for a bunch of e-mail that I don’t want?
- These prices seem really low. Is this stuff new or refurbished?
- Is my credit card info safe or has this site been hacked before?
- Can this site be trusted?
Your customers have the same questions you do. When they are on your site, they need this information in order to feel confident buying from you. Otherwise, there is friction, and where there is friction, people leave.
The answer? For one thing, you can create brief, easy-to-understand policies for customers to read. Make any stipulations for free shipping clear. If you just post “Free Shipping!!!!” in your banner area without explaining that there is a minimum $100 purchase, then when visitors get to your checkout, they will feel as if they’ve been tricked.
Quickly let shoppers know what your return policy is and then link to a more detailed explanation if necessary. Use trust icons and secure checkout symbols to affirm to customers that your checkout process is secure. Taking a few extra measures to clearly communicate can seriously reduce your shopping cart abandonment rate and increase sales.
Take some time this week to evaluate where you stand in these five areas. Just making a few simple changes over time can bring significant increases in traffic and sales.