I want to thank Stuart Livesey for this guest article. Stuart and Toni Livesey operate Copy Text Online a small web design and text business in Hervey Bay Queensland.  They also run Small Office, Home Office Information , a blog where they share their extensive experiences of the highs and lows of small business.
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Now I know that the idea of collecting user reviews is all the rage in some parts of the world. Small businesses see it as a great way to tap into the marketing medium that has the most impact of all word-of-mouth. And there is no doubt that word of mouth marketing really is the most effective of all but is it really as good as all those word of mouth evangelists would have us believe?

Well, when it’s done on a one-to-one basis where one satisfied customer recommends a small business to another potential customer then I believe that it really is as good as the evangelists would have you believe. But when it comes to word-of-mouth marketing on the Net well that’s when I start to wonder if it’s effectiveness is illusory.

In the past that word-of-mouth marketing was usually done in a conversation that might have included two or maybe three people at the most and it usually involved friends people who knew each other people who could see one another. However now those word-of-mouth marketing conversations are open to everyone. They happen between people who don’t know one another and who usually can’t see one another either and therein lays a real problem.

I’m not talking about the problem of the schills that can enter an online conversation to add impact to the message or to make a sales pitch that looks like a recommendation. I’m talking about the problem of the village idiots the trolls the people who are malicious or obtuse simply because that’s what they are.

Recently we built a website for a local business that operates in a very competitive field here in the seaside resort town where we live. To give it a boost in the search engines I made a post about the business and the website on a local news blog that we run.

Overnight, at a time when most people in this town are asleep, someone who claimed to be a local resident made a rather nasty allegation about the hygiene practices of our client that’s something that is very important in the industry that our client works in.

Our approach was to leave the post and have the owner of the business respond to it in a way that would actually bolster his business. At the same time we did a little checking on the details of the person who made the original post and followed the trail that post left. We still can’t be sure but I believe the post was actually made by one of our client’s competitors.

And then along came a village idiot. Many online gurus like to suggest that the Internet has brought the world together into one global village and that’s probably quite a valid suggestion. Sadly though it’s also given every village idiot around the world a voice and here in the town where we live we have a very loud-mouthed one.

They took the original allegation and ran with it. Suddenly our client was allegedly risking people’s lives, penny-pinching at the expense of the health of anyone who used our client’s services or establishment. The village idiot was going to report the business to the local government authorities, the State authorities and anyone else who would listen.

Suddenly we’d gone to Defcon 5 and we were in damage control and reputation management and then the village idiot turned on us.

It’s all blown over now the village idiot can no longer post on our local news blog, the competitor who we thought had made the original post has sold his business and moved on and our client’s business is booming.

But it could have quite easily gone the other way simply because our client had opened himself up to public comment and there were those who were ready to use that for their own less than ethical ends.

So before you become a fervant evangelist for online reviews think about the dark side and the village idiots because the damage they do can sometimes far outweigh the advantages that online reviews may bring.