The importance of reviews and ratings -- positive and negative -- can't be overstated in local search. In terms of consumer motivation, it's all about informing others or rewarding a business for its excellent product/service.
Once feedback is submitted, though, the review or rating can live online for an eternity. How you react and interact with the online version of word-of-mouth referrals can have important implications for your business.
Advice to Advertisers
Ratings and reviews are here to stay. It's best to develop a process for dealing with consumer input, both positive and negative. Develop a proactive plan.
For negative reviews, create a conflict resolution process to contact the affected consumer and fully understand their reason(s) for dissatisfaction. Then, if warranted, take corrective action that resolves the issue and allows the consumer to remove/retract the negative comment with the Web site publisher.
In some cases, despite best efforts, you may not come to resolution. In these cases I'd recommend contacting the Web site publisher and ask to post a sentence under the negative review. State your case or rebuttal (see below).
On some Internet yellow pages (IYPs) this is already an option. On YellowPages.com, not only do they let you respond to a negative review, they also provide tips on how to do this, and actually encourage businesses to respond to unsatisfied consumers with a response.
The best way to increase your rating (and downplay negative comments or hedge ratings) is to encourage customers with positive experiences to post their reviews and ratings.
Once you determine the consumer came to you from a specific local search site (remember to ask where they found your business), provide them with a 3x5 card with instructions on how to post a rating or review. Some businesses enter the names of consumers into a monthly drawing with a prize (usually a free or discounted product or service from the business) as a reward for posting comments and ratings.
In the end, these comments can help you gain valuable feedback from customers, and by responding to individual user reviews, it gives you the opportunity to demonstrate excellent customer service. There are several ways businesses can proactively affect consumer reviews. The important thing is you create a plan of attack and execute on it.
Advice to publishers
In some cases, publishers post reviews without the input or comment from the business a complaint is lodged against. So, in effect, posting the negative rating or review is treating the advertiser as "guilty until proven innocent." I understand the value of user-generated content and reviews; however, I can't help but identify with the advertiser who, in many cases, is "underwriting" the local search site through paid advertisements.
I'd like to nominate a process change that's more proactive for the advertiser and adapts proven models such as the Better Business Bureau. In their model, the complaint or accolade is collected and then presented to the company for a fixed period of time to gain comment and/or potential resolution prior to being displayed or reported to the public.
In this process, most fraudulent or abusive content can be removed before it's presented to the public. Additionally, the process of comment review allows you to build a tighter bond with your advertisers over time.
Until that happens, though, it's important to also remember negative reviews can be a positive. If, on a particular Web site, a product only has five-star reviews, consumers may be skeptical as to the validity of such reviews. Whereas, if there are mixed reviews, the consumer knows they are at least fair judgments, and not false advertisements created by the business.
Negative reviews don't take away from the product if there are also positive reviews to compliment it.
"They that will not be counseled cannot be helped . . ." -- Benjamin Franklin
The information a business owner takes away from a few consumer reviews will affect not only how current and potential consumers are dealt with, but could actually change the face of the company. Feedback from consumers can provide businesses with the opportunity to understand and address how consumers view their business.
Embrace this form of one-on-one communication with your customers to differentiate your business from others. Reap the benefits of today's electronic form of word-of-mouth referrals.