Sometimes trying to improve your reputation on the Web can get you into real trouble.  PacketTrap, which builds networking equipment for data centers, learned this the hard way early in its history, when the company tried using employees to improve its image. “We created some aliases for our employees and they started talking up PacketTrap online in order to get some buzz,” says Steve Goodman, the company’s CEO. “It completely backfired. There is software that lets you track users by their IP addresses, and so we were found out by the most influential blogger in our space. He blogged several times about what we’d done specifically. It was a perfect example of how all publicity is not good publicity.”

Practices like these are often called “astroturfing,” a term that originated with political campaigns seeking to simulate a spontaneous grassroots movement. And they can get you in bigger trouble than PacketTrap experienced. This past summer, the national plastic surgery company Lifestyle Lift had the dubious distinction of being the first to be punished for astroturfing. It agreed to pay $300,000 to New York State for having its employees post positive reviews of its products without revealing their connection to the company, a practice the state called “deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct.”

Seven secrets to positive online reviews

What can you do legitimately to obtain positive online reviews? Consider some approaches suggested by those who’ve been there.

  1. Pay attention to the reviews you already have. It may sound obvious, but you can’t generate good reviews (at least not legally) unless you have happy customers to write them. “No amount of asking for user reviews or soliciting feedback will help compensate for a bad first impression,” notes Jason Arango, internet marketing strategist for Think Basis, Inc., an internet marketing firm. Start by making sure to resolve any issues that particularly bother your customers if you possibly can. How do you find out what those issues are? By reading their reviews. “We tell customers to make it part of their daily or weekly routine to search out reviews of their products or services,” notes Steve Pogorzelski, president of ClickFuel, a search engine optimization and marketing company.
  2. Consider asking for reviews. Not good reviews, just reviews, and not until the end of the transaction. “You don’t want to be pushy, but after you’ve delivered a service or product, it makes sense to ask that they review it on Yelp, for instance,” Arango says. “Let them know that the company takes their opinions seriously and checks that feedback daily.” The request should come after a meaningful interaction of some sort, not with every routine transaction, he adds. “Personally, it rubs me the wrong way when a clerk has simply rung up your purchase in a store, but then also hands you a survey to ask how well they did,” he says.
  3. Or simply make your Web presence known. “If your customers are under 30, encouraging them to post a review may turn them off,” Pogorzelski says. Instead, he recommends simply engaging them in the online world, by creating a Facebook group and Twitter account for your business, for instance. He adds that customers in this age bracket are so accustomed to posting online about every experience they have, they’ll almost certainly share their thoughts about your product or service without any prompting.
  4. Respond quickly to bad reviews. What’s the best way to deal with a bad review? Resist the urge to defend your company, product, or employee, an approach that almost always makes things worse. “The key is not to fire back at the customer, the key is to examine the problem and resolve it,” Pogorzelski says. “Also, if a bad review is warranted, thank the customer for the review and apologize for the bad experience. Often, the consumer just wants acknowledgement that the business owner understands there’s a problem and wants to fix it. We find a customer will often go back and update a negative review once the issue has been resolved, so you can turn a negative into a positive if you act quickly.” If the bad review is unwarranted, it’s especially important to resist the urge to get defensive. “Respond with empathy and appreciation,” he says.
  5. Reach out to negative reviewers directly. Not everyone recommends responding publicly to bad reviews. PacketTrap never responds online to negative reviews, because even doing that much tends to put the company in a defensive position, Goodman says. Instead the company contacts negative reviewers directly if it can find them, and tries to resolve the issue. “If it’s thoughtful, constructive feedback, we may offer an extension of a free trial or a free upgrade,” Goodman says. That makes sense, he adds, because often the feature a customer wants will be available within a few months, so it’s worthwhile to entice customers to stick around.
  6. Remember, it’s a numbers game. The more reviews you get, the more likely you are to get one or more bad reviews. Even if you are providing the best product or service you can, some people will tend to complain. So your goal should be a large number of mostly good reviews. “If we get 10 reviews, seven good ones and three bad ones, that’s a lot better for us than one review,” Goodman notes.
  7. Make reviewing as easy as possible. With that in mind, PacketTrap has made it ultra-easy for customers to review its products by putting a link to a review page right into the product itself. “Our product has a ‘give feedback’ button that users encounter at the end of the process,” Goodman says. “The user has three choices: one to send us feedback, one to suggest a new feature, and one that sends them to a review site. We did that hoping they would mostly write positive reviews, and that’s how it’s worked out.”