Credit: Illustration: Ryan Snook

In October, homeowners searching the Internet for information about Springfield Roofing, Siding & Windows, in Northern Viginia, would find the company's Web site listed at the top of Google search results. And right behind it, a posting on Cliff's Blog, dated July 5, 2006, faulting the company for failing to respond in a timely manner to a request for an estimate on “emergency roof repair” and advising readers to avoid the company.

Years ago, negative publicity might mean a media story that came and went in a day. Today, any homeowner with access to a computer can air gripes, which are then read by thousands of potential customers.

DEATH BY DISINFORMATION Caren Browning, vice president of The Morris & King Co., a New York public relations firm, points out that “it's not just traditional media that companies need to be concerned about.” Blogs, Web sites, chat rooms, and video sites are all potential sources of negative information. Add to these, sites such as Angie's List, where members can file negative, or positive, reports. Surveys show that consumers take Internet information seriously. According to a 2003 University of California, Los Angeles, study on Internet use, 60% of Americans consider the Internet a key source of information, and 56% say “most” of the information they find there is “accurate and reliable.”

Kris McCurry, of Brave New Markets, a marketing and public relations firm that represents several large home improvement companies, says that the first line of defense is to respond to complaints in a timely manner and eliminate the desire to go public. “If the customer was truly wronged, accept responsibility and try to make it right,” she says.

Troy Marshall, owner of Marshall Roofing, in Lorton, Va., agrees that the best strategy is to “meet it head-on.” When a Marshall Roofing estimator recently missed his appointment, the homeowner wrote a negative report and graded the company “F” on Angie's List, a Web-based consumer network. Marshall called the homeowner, apologized, and sent an estimator who was on the premises for 2½ hours. Ultimately, Marshall persuaded the homeowner to remove the negative report.

EXTREME VIGILANCE Marshall periodically does a Google search on his own company to find out what people are saying about it.

McCurry recommends using Google Alerts, a free service that sends you e-mail updates based on the query or topic information you enter. This way, you can be alerted if something is posted online about your company. And, if it is, you can contact the poster to see if the complaint can be managed — perhaps by having the information changed or retracted, or by explaining your company's actions in a rebuttal, which sites such as Angie's List allow contractors to do.

Web Only: Q+A With Caren Browing

Virtual Black Eye