When all publicity isn’t good publicity

Last weekend’s New York Times ran a remarkable expose of US based online entrepreneur Tony Russo’s business methods and how he’s built a business on bad online reviews.

Russo’s model is basically to upset customers, they then complain in online forums which creates more links to his website (something we’re careful not to do here) and those links in turn give his sites higher Google rankings.

Crazy stuff, particularly when you read the allegations of his behaviour in the article, which claims he stalks unhappy customers, calls their mobile phones and even masquerades as the complaining client to reverse credit card disputes.

This is an interesting side effect of gaming search engine rankings and how consumers use sites like Google and Bing. In recent times, being in the first dozen listings on these sites has been the holy grail of online marketing, with the reasonable assumption that a first page result will win customers.

Up until recently that assumption has been correct, as most consumers have grabbed the first sites they have found when searching for a service or product, but now that’s changing as customers are increasingly checking comments, reviews and social media sites like Facebook before deciding to buy a product.

So this news isn’t as good as it looks for the shonky merchant as the market gets savvier. Today’s customers are finding ways to dig a little deeper than just the superficial initial search, and when the purchase is going to cost a few hundred dollars most cost conscious buyers are going to spend the extra 10 minutes checking out the seller’s reputation.

As online markets develop, we’re moving away from the high visibility marketing methods of the mass media era to something similar to the word-of-mouth driven marketplaces of the 18th Century village or town square.

This is particularly true in the hospitality industries where the review sites like Eatability and location based services like Foursquare and Facebook Places are becoming venues for happy, and unhappy, customers to share their experiences.

Our names as reputable businesspeople matter more than ever and not just with customers, but suppliers, staff and creditors as well. We’re returning to the days where a businesses person is only as good as their word and our words will bite us if we can’t be trusted.

We have to get over the idea that all news is good news and that a thousand online friends or mentions are a measure of success. Our businesses are now being judged on our quality and value that we deliver. It’s something we need to keep in mind every time a customer contacts us.

Paul will be discussing the future of Windows and the web on ABC Local Radio’s Nightlife program this Thursday night from 10pm Sydney and Melbourne time. More details are at Paul’s website.

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