Working the Web: Dos and don'ts of online reviews

I was looking at new cameras the other day when it struck me how much the Internet has changed the way we shop.

My first camera was a Pentax MX. I bought it because my father liked Pentax cameras, and I didn't really have anything to compare it to. It was only after frustration with lenses and accessories that wouldn't fit that I switched over to something else. A lack of knowledge cost me a lot of money.

That is not a problem today. There is no reason for buying a camera, TV, computer or anything else without first finding out how much other people like or dislike it. You can go to any of the review sites for whatever you are buying, or just type in the product name and the word "review" into Google, and you will be presented with plenty of information to help your buying decision.

This also works for local businesses. Sites like Yelp and Insiderpages allow people to post reviews on just about any local business. So the next time you're looking for a good restaurant, give it a try before you lay out big bucks on a meal.

But what if you are a business? How can you use these reviews to your advantage?

First, you need to do some searching to find out what people are saying about your business. Knowledge is power, and if you don't know what your customers are saying, you don't have the power.

If you find people who have left positive reviews, then quote or link to them from your Web site. Satisfied customers are your best salespeople, so let people know about them.

But what if someone has given your business a bad review? First, don't fly off the handle. Overreacting can blow these things out of proportion. First, respect the rights of your customers to express what they feel.

Next, some review sites allow businesses to respond to reviews. Do so with caution and respect. Lay out your side of the story without attacking anyone. Own up to any shortcomings and tell readers what you are doing to correct them. Everyone has their bad days, and most people realize that.

If you think your business is being unfairly attacked by someone with an ax to grind like a former employee or a competitor, check the site for some kind of dispute resolution process to remove such material. It may not be possible to get rid of these, but resist the urge to jump into the mud with your attacker.

Now, you aren't supposed to post reviews on your own business, but I'm sure plenty of people do it. A better way would be to ask your best customers if they would post a review of your business on these sites. A few good reviews from these people can drown out any negative postings, and help you find new customers.

Knowing what your customers really think of your business can be a lesson in humility. But once you are armed with this knowledge, you can use it to your advantage to make your business better. We don't live in the Dark Ages, and everyone is watching. Don't be left out of that conversation.

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