How to handle a hijacking

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By now, most of you are on the social media bandwagon in one form or another. You’ve got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a MySpace page or even a blog or a forum. You’re out there making your business more visible. Unfortunately, that visibility can make you a target. So, what can you do if you have negative or even intentionally hostile interactions online?

Not that long ago, if a customer had beef with you, they were limited to the “We’re on Your Side” segment on the local TV news or filing a negative report to the Better Business Bureau. Today, a ticked-off person can single-handidly destroy your business’s online reputation. If you’re not in the top five on Google in a search of your own name, it would be extremely easy for someone with the motivation and the know-how to slam you online and have those results be what people see when they search for your store.

First up is the genuine customer who is so upset with you that they make it a point to publicly criticize you. They’ve spent money with you and didn’t get the response they felt they deserved. They are so mad, they will personally see to it that no one ever does business with you again. (Note: If it gets to this point, where they are ripping you apart on Yelp.com, your feedback process in the “real world” broke down somewhere.)

Take a step back and determine whether they have a legitimate point from a typical customer’s standpoint. Sure, you can deny an extended-warranty claim because of some fine print, but are the people who are reading this publicly-aired dirty laundry going to agree?

If you decide to appease this irate individual, I recommend doing it offline. As part of the agreement, convince them to post that the outcome was acceptable to them and everything is all rainbows and roses now.

But the damage may already be done. It’s probable the Yelp review or forum post. Things like “Crazy Harry’s MotoMall is run by a corrupt ferret!” already have been crawled and indexed by GoogleBot. When someone Googles your business, they see the headline, but never see the follow up. And no, Google (or even Yelp, for that matter) will not remove that entry.

Welcome to the brave new world of a permanent online record!

If you’re 100 percent certain that most reasonable people will agree that the complaint is groundless, post your side of the story calmly and clearly and wait for the general public consensus to come to your aid. Keep in mind though that it’s really easy for a flame-war to break out if most people aren’t going to take your side.

Finally, you can choose to just ignore them. Let them vent and wait for the forum members, Facebook fans, etc. to defend you. The big guys like Dell and Apple operate this way because they are huge, and a vocal minority will not make a large impact on their businesses. Your store probably relies on a smaller number of customers that may be swayed by the complainer’s arguments. I suggest that you don’t ignore them.

Then there’s something more nefarious. What if your competition makes a concerted effort to discredit you up online” There are companies out there that focus on ruining the online reputation of others. They don’t typically advertise this fact, but they’re out there.

Often it can be hard to tell if what’s happening is due to a “real” customer uprising or a hit-job by a paid online assassin. One big indicator that the latter has happened is if the negative online vibe is cranking up all at once. If you’re seeing your name all over the web in negative posts, or you go from three positive reviews on Yelp to 300 negative ones in the course of a few weeks, you’re in someone’s sights.

Unfortunately if you get hit with this kind of thing, there’s not much you can do to fight back beyond trying to overcome it with legitimate positive karma. If you’ve run a good business for years and have thousands of happy customers, they may come to your aid in denouncing the attackers. A grassroots uprising of supporters defending your honor in the court of public opinion is the best you can hope for.

There are companies specializing in online reputation management that can help you out, but they are not cheap, nor foolproof. An attacker may create a lot of negative websites like joe-bobs-moto-shack-sucks.com and avoid-joe-bobs-at-all-costs.com and do some basic SEO to force your actual website to list below the attack pages on search engine results. Your primary recourse is to create some more sites and SEO/optimize them so that the “bad” pages fall off Google’s top results. Yes, it can get ugly.

Now, more than ever, it’s important that even marginally pissed-off customers are handled before they do real damage to your online reputation. The best defense is a good offense. Run your business so that only the most unreasonable folks have cause to go screaming, torch in hand, through the virtual village to burn down your castle. Establish a wide and deep social media presence and make sure your site is SEO’d to the hilt so that it can’t get buried by negative decoy sites. The world is watching, and they all have access to the microphone.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews May 2010 issue.