An attorney’s reputation may be one of the most important factors that clients consider before hiring counsel. In today’s world of online reviews, managing your reputation can be challenging. While many online sites allow users to write reviews, the submission of user-generated content usually lacks oversight and requires little (if any) proof of accuracy. Writing anything about anyone is easy and takes no time at all. Negative information online can lead to a serious backlash to your reputation and a damaging impact on your bottom line.
How should you manage online reviews to ensure your reputation and trustworthiness are intact?
Studies show that 91% of people regularly or occasionally read online reviews, and 84% trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. See, “Local Consumer Review Study,” BrightLocal.
For attorneys who have traditionally relied on word-of-mouth referrals, developing a process to manage online reviews is crucial, especially as the under-35 generation matures. This generation of digital natives writes online reviews, trusts online reviews and reads corporate responses to online reviews. See, “The Future Decision-Makers: Marketing to Millennials,” Jaffe PR.
Making Online Reviews Work In Your Favor
Positive reviews improve trustworthiness and credibility, so it’s important to have a steady and up-to-date stream of reviews being posted online. Three reviews from two years ago don’t carry much weight with your client base. Developing a strategy for gaining reviews on an ongoing basis will help build and sustain your online reputation.
A well-crafted outreach strategy to request reviews can be integrated into a client feedback program or law firm survey. Identifying firm advocates is the first step in building a list of potential reviewers.
When identifying the best online platforms to target for reviews, consider where your potential clients browse online. Google, Facebook and Yelp are obvious platforms. Google factors reviews into its search algorithm, which can help with search engine optimization. Confidence from your client base correlates to confidence from Google, particularly with people searching for law firms in their areas.
Defending Against Negative Online Reviews
Obviously, negative reviews can degrade your personal reputation and your firm’s trustworthiness — and a pattern of negative reviews compounds the reputational damage. Since online reviews are highly visible in multiple platforms, your current and potential client base will undoubtedly see reviews when conducting basic online research. Negative reviews on Google, Facebook and Yelp can also hurt your local search rankings because they are an algorithmic ranking factor.
A pattern of negative reviews without responses gives the impression that your firm doesn’t care about its clients or reputation. That’s why a process for monitoring and responding to reviews is imperative for your company’s reputation management.
Managing Online Reviews
Every online reputation management strategy for your law firm should include these three elements:
- A strategy for responding to reviews;
- Tools to monitor reviews; and
- A process to ask for reviews.
Responding to Reviews
Handling negative reviews requires an authentic and thoughtful approach. Even in the case of fraudulent reviews, always avoid online arguments. Giving a reviewer an opportunity to further rant in public only makes the situation worse. As best you can, take the conversation offline by asking the person to call your office, or message the person directly if the platform allows. Never shift blame to a reviewer, attack the reviewer in some manner, or threaten to sue for defamation (as tempting as it may be).
When responding to negative reviews, first determine whether the review is real or fraudulent. If the review is from a current or former client, gather background information to inform your response. Act quickly — within 24 hours if possible — with a brief reply that recognizes the complaint, apologizes (even if it’s for a misunderstanding) and provides a resolution. Often, people just want to be heard and will upgrade their reviews if their grievances are handled professionally.
Attorneys are subject to professional confidentiality guidelines, such as the American Bar Association Model Rule 1.6(a), so be careful that you don’t reveal confidential information when responding to clients’ reviews.
In some instances, platforms let you request removal when reviews are fraudulent and/or defamatory. Mechanisms for requesting the removal of reviews vary by platform.
Through Google My Business, you can respond to and flag inappropriate reviews. Flag reviews as inappropriate only if they have violated Google’s review policy. It may take several days to get a response. Keep your expectations low; Google rarely removes reviews unless you win a legal action against the reviewer.
The option to include reviews on your Facebook page can be turned on and off. Weigh the pros of positive reviews against the cons of negative reviews when deciding whether to include this functionality on your page. Fraudulent or inappropriate reviews can be reported to Facebook on an individual basis, but don’t expect a response unless the review is threatening or illegal.
As with Google and Facebook, you can request that fraudulent reviews on Yelp be taken down. However, Yelp explains, “we don’t typically take sides in factual disputes and generally allow Yelpers to stand behind their reviews.” See, “Will Yelp remove a false or defamatory review?” .
When deciding which tools to use for monitoring online reviews, first determine where you get the majority of your reviews. Google and Facebook are obvious, since they dominate online spaces. If most of your reviews are limited to these platforms, you can monitor them through Google My Business and create alerts using Facebook notifications.
For more-widespread monitoring, consider a platform that provides a comprehensive dashboard and access to manage reviews quickly. Search Engine Journal recently posted a list of 10 helpful monitoring options.
One of the best strategies for pushing down and diluting negative reviews is to develop a system for gaining positive reviews. While the FTC prohibits companies from offering incentives to clients for leaving reviews, each online platform has its own set of rules for posting reviews. Here’s a breakdown of the top three.
Google’s User Contributed Content Policy allows for wide interpretation about who can leave reviews on Google:
“Contributions must be based on real experiences and information. Deliberately fake content, copied or stolen photos, off-topic reviews, defamatory language, personal attacks, and unnecessary or incorrect content are all in violation of our policy.”
In other words, the reviewer has to have real information about the company but doesn’t necessarily have to be a client. However, Google clearly states that companies cannot write their own reviews or post fake reviews about competitors.
Examples of disallowed practices include, but are not limited to:
- Reviewing your own firm;
- Posting content about a current or former employment experience; and
- Posting content about a competitor to manipulate their ratings.
Facebook’s guidelines for posting reviews on Facebook pages indicate that the reviewer should have a personal experience to share but doesn’t necessarily have to be a client.
According to Facebook, when recommending a business, reviewers should:
- Focus on the product or service offered by the business;
- Base it on personal experience; and
- Not manage the Page for that business.
Yelp has the most-restrictive rules for posting reviews.
- Don’t ask customers, mailing list subscribers, friends, family or anyone else to review your business.
- Don’t ask your staff to compete to collect reviews.
- Don’t run surveys that ask for reviews from customers reporting positive experiences.
- Don’t ever offer freebies, discounts or payment in exchange for reviews — it will turn off savvy consumers, and may also be illegal. Yelp has a Consumer Alerts program to let people know about businesses that engage in this sort of activity. For the same reason, you also shouldn’t offer incentives for users to remove reviews.
Online visibility can be a powerful marketing strategy for law firms, but is often a double-edged sword. Managing the risks and developing a strategy to get more of the good and less of the bad will go a long way toward building a positive reputation for yourself and your firm.
Melanie Trudeau is the Director of New Business & Digital Strategies at Jaffe. As Jaffe’s law firm digital marketing strategist, Melanie helps improve clients’ online visibility. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @Melanie_Trudeau.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.
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