8 Unbreakable Rules for Handling Local Reviews

02/13/2015 01:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Today, local reviews are a critical part of your business's reputation -- whether you're aware of them or not. People are relying on reviews found on local directory sites and review sites like Yelp now more than ever, and the quality and quantity of your reviews can even affect how your business ranks in Google and other search engines.

Your approach to local reviews is going to be partially dependent on your goals and resources as a business, but no matter what, you'll have to follow these eight unbreakable rules:

1. Claim Your Local Profiles

The first step in any successful local review strategy is to claim as many local profiles as you can. That means logging on to Yelp, TripAdvisor, UrbanSpoon or any other directories relevant to your business, and claiming your business's account. There, you can update all your information and make sure your customers are posting reviews under the right business name, and prospective customers have the right information they'll need to find you in the first place.

2. Read Every Review

It can be tempting to let your reviews take care of themselves -- after all, you can't directly change what's written about you. But it's important to read every review you possibly can. Check your profiles regularly to see new reviews and read them as early as possible. Treat it as a learning experience that gives you an idea of where you stand as a business.

3. Don't Be Defensive About Negative Reviews

Many business owners have broken this rule, and it has cost them dearly. When an angry user leaves a negative review for a business, that user will often exaggerate their experience or add in unnecessary language to heighten the severity of the review. This can be frustrating and humiliating, but it's important to avoid responding aggressively or defensively. Doing so can compromise your reputation as a business owner and worsen an already bad situation. Instead, look to what went wrong, apologize and offer to make things better with a refund, free offer, discount or other way of ameliorating the situation.

4. Do Leave Comments and Improve Customer Experience

Comments and responses shouldn't be exclusive to negative reviews, however. Your more positive fans also deserve that extra level of customer service. You don't necessarily have to respond to every review, but do occasionally take the time to address your fans directly for their thoughts and comments. Doing so will encourage more people to review your business, and will cement your reputation amongst your initial positive reviewers.

5. Learn and Adjust Your Practices

While managing your online reviews is beneficial from an SEO and customer acquisition standpoint, one of the greatest advantages to an online review strategy is getting to see your business through outside eyes. This is your chance to learn what people really think of your business, down to the gritty details, and it's important to take that opportunity seriously. Take note on what common themes appear in your online reviews -- both the positive and negative ones. Learn what can be changed in your business for the better, and do so.

6. Don't Manipulate Your Reviews
This is a tempting, but dangerous practice. Some local businesses have attempted to manipulate their reviews by posting fake reviews from proxy accounts, bribing customers to post positive reviews or intimidating people into taking down negative reviews. All of these practices are violations of local directory sites' terms of service, and doing any of them could get you harshly penalized or ruin your reputation amongst your customers.

7. Encourage Reviews
However, merely encouraging people to let you know what they think is not considered manipulation. If you're listed on Yelp, post signs and stickers around your business that encourage people to find you on Yelp. Include clauses and callouts on your marketing materials that lead people to review sites. As long as you aren't specifically trying to get positive reviews, you aren't violating any official policies. Your goal should be to get people talking.

8. Don't Let Reviews Define Your Business

Instead, let your business define the reviews. Don't let a single negative review get you down, and don't let a handful of positive reviews make you think your business is perfect. There is always room for improvement, and there is always time to change. You will always have both positive and negative reviews. Your goal should be to create and adjust the best business you can. If you do that, the reviews should take care of themselves.

Keep these rules in mind as you work to improve your company's reputation moving forward. The better reviews you cultivate, and the more you pay attention to what people are saying about you, the better poised you'll be for higher search ranks, more visibility and more satisfied customers.