Starting Wednesday, verified Google Places business owners can answer Google Places visitors who criticize their operations, fairly or unfairly.
The downside of the democratization of criticism is that not everyone considers the weight of his or her words or strives to present a balanced assessment of a particular business or service. And the Internet doesn't offer an ombudsman to consider issues of fairness.
But reviews are serious business for business owners, or the serious loss of business. Casual comments like "Coffee was amazing but a couple of the female employees were stuck up," as one Google Places user said of the otherwise well-reviewed Ritual Coffee in San Francisco, can do lasting harm. Mitigating information about the commenter's biases or agenda may never come into play.
Google sees interaction as a way to improve local businesses.
"Both positive and negative feedback can be good for your business and help it grow (even though it’s sometimes hard to hear)," said Google's John Maguire in a blog post. "By responding, you can build stronger relationships with existing and prospective customers."
Maguire suggests, for example, that a thoughtful response to a problem can turn a disgruntled customer into a happy one.
The key is thoughtful. Convinced that some business owners may respond in a way that will only make matters worse -- ie: "Just avoid holding it in that way." -- Google has posted some guidelines about how to respond to critics.
These include: Be polite and professional; Keep it short and sweet; Be appropriate; Be thankful; Be a friend, not a salesperson.
In other words, smile during the beating. It will pass and hopefully your business will still be standing.