As a business owner, you're used to calling all the shots, so it can be infuriating when the Internet seems like a vast, uncontrollable forum for customers to heap criticism on your company. Getting a rave review on an obscure website but being unsure of how to highlight it as an example of your devoted customer base and quality services can be just as frustrating.

Many businesses get caught up in the frenzy over social media such as Twitter and Facebook, while neglecting review and answer sites. Comprehensive surveillance of review sites could save you the cost of consultants and focus groups, and allow you to interact directly with customers to manage and monitor your company's reputation. Responding to criticism, within limits, and posting answers to online queries in your industry can bring in new and repeat customers if done properly.

Some key sites in this field to familiarize yourself with are Yelp, Yahoo! Answers, and Mahalo. Yelp has millions of reviews of local businesses around the United States. It's free to set up an account, and it allows you to answer questions about your business and see how many users are scoping out your business' page. Setting up a detailed profile with useful information such as images and a link to your website will give your company more visibility and clout, while you can offer special discounts or promotions for customers that give you a review.

The upside of Yahoo! Answers, is that it is immensely popular and largely dominates the Q & A market. However, the quality of the answers is typically low because absolutely anyone can ask or answer a question. On the bright side, that just gives your well-thought-out response more of a chance to shine.

Mahalo is a human-powered search engine with a growing Q & A section. That section allows users to post a question and offer a monetary prize or tip for the best answer. A $50 or $100 tip can draw dozens of respondents who are incentivized to think hard about your question and your brand. It's like an instant, public focus group with marketing built in," says Jason Calacanis, Mahalo's CEO.

Sometimes a niche Q & A site targeted to your industry is more effective. For example, if your company does business consulting, a site such as Bizmore, which is an advice community for small and mid-sized businesses, can really help you zero in on your target demographic. Examples of smaller players in the Q & A field that are still useful to know about or look into are peppered throughout this article.

How to Take Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites: Answer Questions to Find Customers

Surfing message boards and Q & A sites to answer the questions of current and future customers can be a serious boon to a small business. It's a relatively easy way to raise brand awareness, build your SEO strength, and even generate sales leads. But you can't just rampage through the world of online queries dispensing unwanted advice like a magic eightball gone haywire. You need a primer on the etiquette and strategy of online Q & A.

1. Be flexible. When Best Price Nutrition discovered that the questions they answered on Yahoo! Answers had a higher click-through rate and resulted in more new customers than their company blog, they retooled their online strategy to focus more on reaching out to customers through Yahoo! Answers.
 
2. Be genuine. It always helps to link to your website at the end of a post, though some forums forbid it and you should examine any online community's rules before engaging. Also, keep the tone personal rather than promotional. Use your name and title at the company, and for forums that require a user name, make sure you are consistent across all the platforms you post on. At all costs eschew corporate speak.

3. Don't lie or mislead. This rule sounds simple, but enough companies flub it that it bears repeating. Some obvious examples to avoid emulating include John Mackey, Whole Foods' CEO, who was caught cheerleading Whole Foods and bashing its competitors on online stock market forums. In a similar vein, Lifestyle Lift, a national plastic surgery company, was forced to pay the highest price yet for this sort of practice when New York State fined the company $300,000 for "deceptive commercial practices" after its employees posted positive reviews of the company's services without revealing their, ahem, conflict of interest.

4. Put quality before quantity. Each answer you post reaches not just the original poster but anyone with similar interests and access to a search engine. This means you don't need to kill yourself responding to every forum user whose question has some bearing on your business.

5. Don't feed the trolls. An inevitability of anonymous message boards is angry or spiteful people with a lot of time on their hands. If you become engaged in a conversation with someone who is clearly irrational or has some sort of ax to grind, the best strategy is to ignore them.

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How to Take Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites: Know What People are Saying

"The first phase of social media was listening to the conversation. The second phase was joining the conversation. The third phase will be hosting the conversation on your site," says Calacanis. But first things first, here are some of the best ways to track public opinion about your company.

1. Keep a finger on the pulse. There a multitude of free sites that allow you to track mentions of your company or brand on both traditional and social media. Some free and popular methods include setting up Google or Yahoo! Alerts, as well as tracking Twitter hashtags, which serve to organize trends and topics, and mentions of your user name. Using Guy Kawasaki's Alltop, a directory of popular blogs and articles on a wide range of subjects, can help you keep tabs on the movers and shakers in your industry and potentially develop relationships with them. In a separate category from reputation monitoring sites and services, Google Analytics is a great free tool that lets you monitor your website traffic which, among other things, can help you evaluate the success of your social media efforts. Finally, it's probably a good idea to keep an eye on the competition as well to see how you could improve and avoid pitfalls.

2. Get insight into customer satisfaction. Services such as RatePoint, a suite of widgets that business owners can subscribe to, including customer reviews, surveys, and newsletters can be downloaded to any commercial website. The service helped Will Aubuchon who runs Hardwarestore.com customize his inventory to better meet customer demand and boost revenue by 5 percent last year.

Dig Deeper: Safeguard Your Brand Reputation Online

How to Take Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites: Responding to Negative Reviews

If your Yelp page is one of the first things to come up on a Google search, scathing reviews can put a real dent in your pocketbook. At the same time, sometimes you have to toe the line. Here's how to approach a giant digital thumbs down.

1. Don't get defensive. It's the natural response but no matter how justified you feel, your initial response to a miffed customer should be apologetic that they had a negative experience and convey proactive steps to address the problem.

2. Be quick on your feet. Customers will often go back to update a negative review if the issue gets resolved, so a swift response can turn a negative into a positive.

3. Be discreet. Reach out to negative reviewers directly and privately, you want to learn more about their grievance and acknowledge them in a controlled setting. Perhaps later, if the situation is applicable to a larger segment of your customers you can post a general apology or update on your website or blog.

4. A few bad reviews won't kill you. Obviously it would be great if all your customers composed sonnets extolling your company's greatness and performed them on YouTube, but even if you have hardcore fans, there will always be haters. This is one reason you should encourage customers to review you. The more feedback you have the smaller the voice of the malcontent reviewers will be.

Dig Deeper: How Businesses Can Respond to Criticism on Yelp

How to Take Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites: Removing False Information

Responding to constructive criticism is one thing, you can take it into account to improve customer satisfaction and your business in general, but what if there's false, defamatory information about your company floating around in the ether? One site, the RipOff Report, serves as a forum for consumers to complain about different businesses. However, the founder and editor of the site, Ed Magedson, refuses to take down false complaints, though he will investigate them for a fee. This business model has made RipOff Report the subject of many lawsuits, but the site appears to have survived most of the legal challenges unscathed. If you find yourself in this situation, here's how to take matters into your own hands after politely requesting a retraction, of course.

The main thing is to beef up your SEO. If people refuse to take down defamatory content about your company, your best option is "trying to push that domain onto the second page of Google so that it's not coming up in the top ten results," says Brad Fallon, an SEO expert and the CEO of Stompernet, a network for entrepreneurs to compare best practices for online businesses. After all, acing the algorithms to manage your online reputation is a lot less expensive than dragging the situation before the courts.

Fallon also recommends that companies not only keep a main company website but also several other ancillary blogs or domains for key products or events, which will also help to control what shows up first in a Google search. If that doesn't work, you can engage in SEO sabotage: purchasing links to the offending website that appear on a site that's already in the search engine's doghouse for violations such as keyword stuffing, machine-generated pages, or copyright violation. Such behavior is malicious but has yet to be deemed illegal. A SEO consultant would probably only do this if the content that you're burying is defamatory to your company and not just a customer with a bone to pick.

Dig Deeper: Can you take legal action against a former employee who bad-mouthed the company?

How to Take Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites: Make It Easy for Customers to Review You
 
Asking your customers to review you point blank is a bad idea when unsolicited; it is especially unappealing to the under-30 demographic, although it works better after an in-depth, positive customer service interaction. Feedback rates can be as low as 10-15 percent even for successful e-commerce sellers so you should make it as easy as possible for your customers to review you. It's also a good idea to let your employees know that positive customer feedback can boost revenues, as well as their compensation.

1. Use an aggregating service. Services such as BackType and uberVU allow you to pull comments about your company from different social media onto your site in real-time. So, for example, you can set up a section of your website where your customers can go to see feedback, both good and bad, culled from their fellow customers.

2. Create your own feedback community. Creating and hosting your own community of customers discussing your company or product can be beneficial but it can also be costly. "Running a successful community takes about $10,000-$25,000 a month in resources if you want to do it right," says Calacanis, which he acknowledges isn't within the budgets of many small businesses. Still there are advantages for companies that can shell out that kind of cash. "The best thing a brand can do is create a branded community because relying on what's out there has too much risk for my liking," says Rob Frankel, an independent branding consultant.

Both Frankel and Calacanis's companies provide these types of services to their customers but Calacanis notes that, price aside, it's not the answer for every brand; your customers already have to feel a certain way about you for it to work. He says, "Only about 10 percent of brands are ready to 'host the conversation' on their site. Most folks have a hard time even listening and talking to their customers online. Can you imagine if AT&T had a questions and answers community? They would spend all day answering [questions like], "Why does your mobile network make my iPhone suck so much?"

Dig Deeper: Business Owners Warm Up to Online Reviews

How to Take Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites: Resources

To keep tabs on mentions of your company and competitors:

•    Services like BackType and uberVU help you track social media mentions of your brand or company as well as pulling those comments onto your site.

•   Alltop is a media aggregator that collects headlines and blog posts on popular topics. You can use it to keep tabs on the movers and shakers in your industry and potentially develop relationships with them.

•   Google Analytics lets you monitor your website traffic which, among other things, can help you evaluate the success of your social media efforts and where potential leads are finding you.

To post answers and reach out to customers:

•   Yahoo! Answers is well optimized but the quality of the answers provided there tends not to be as rich as on other sites. This gives your cogent response more of a chance to stand out however.

•   Mahalo Answers allows you to hold mini focus groups at a great value by paying users for the best answer. Just remember lowball offers might get you poorly thought out answers.

•    To get feedback from your customers, you can use services such as RatePoint, which has the capacity to provide business owners with customer reviews, surveys, and newsletters.

•   Yelp is becoming an increasingly important resource for people looking for the skinny on local businesses such as restaurants, barbers, and even doctors that they might want to use. Making sure you have a robust profile with plenty of information is an important first step in taking command of your Web presence.

•    Niche question and answer sites on a subject such as business, can help you zero in on your target audience. Bizmore and FiLife.com are two good examples of strong niche communities.

To get creative:

•    If you want to get creative you can try forming partnerships with existing Q & A services or decision engines to suggest your company as a solution to people searching for a related topic. For example, ChaCha provides answers via text, Aardvark helps people get answers by reaching out to their extended social networks, and Hunch helps people make decisions by asking them questions about their personal preferences.