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Vanaski: 'A race for top billing' in fight over consumer business reviews on Internet

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 11:24 p.m.

Almost everything I've acquired in the last few years has come after reading a lot of Internet reviews. Considering how many people also review items, it's safe to say most of us rely on feedback from other consumers before making our own decisions.

When I found out there was a company that promises to help businesses clear bad reviews from search engines, it was like a personal insult.

After a particularly bad run-in with a mechanic who not only failed to diagnose and repair the problems with my car but billed me as though he did, I plastered the Internet with negative reviews. Yes, I did it because I was mad. It was also my way of letting people know to stay away from him.

Turns out, his business was more adept at Internet defense than fixing cars. His secretary began responding to my reviews by saying it was my fault for owning a 1990 Volvo because it was a pain in the axle. Other mechanics had said working on Volvos of that age could be problematic, but they didn't take my money and then return the car saying it was fixed.

Why shouldn't consumers get both sides to a story when money is on the line?

I called Mike Zammuto, president of Philadelphia-based Brand.com, who estimates he has a few thousand clients who pay his business to “Clear Negatives. Enhance Positives.”

He said that's done partly by seeking out libelous comments made by reviewers and to let search engines know there might be legal ramifications for keeping them online.

Brand.com also acts as a public relations firm in some cases, pitching stories to news organizations and blogs and offering up their clients as a source. Then, if a story about the business goes online, it pushes the negative reviews down in a Google search based on the most recent reference. Zammuto said about 95 percent of people who do online searches don't go past the first page of results, so those older, negative reviews might not be seen.

That feels kinda sneaky, doesn't it? Zammuto said he sees it a different way.

“It's like a race for the top billing” on search engines, he said. He contends 25 percent of online reviews are false, and he especially takes issue with sites such as Yelp.com, which he said doesn't vet reviewers.

“User-generated content sites could be good if it could validate negative claims,” Zammuto said. Businesses have no recourse if the allegations are not true, or if a reviewer is targeting the wrong business, he added.

Zammuto sees what he does as a chance for business owners to take control of their online narrative.

“If you don't tell your story, you don't want to leave it to strangers to do it,” he said.

Especially if you've got something to hide?

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, nvanaski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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