Category: Business

pirate-google-image-searchGoogle image search is a very powerful tool, allowing you to find images relating to virtually any keywords, and even to search for images that are “similar” to another image.

But there are rising complaints that Google’s image search is too powerful, and makes it easy for users to illegal download or reuse copyright-protected images.

Google’s search results deliver a plethora of images in an easy-to-view format. It only takes a few clicks to find and download the original image file. There is no notice about ownership or copyright protection.

Many users simply don’t understand copyrights, and some believe that anything on the Internet is free to use. Even those that may understand the law often ignore it.

Google has essentially created a tool that facilitates the misuse of intellectual property,

Getty Images, a company in the business of selling image licenses, has filed complains against Google in the US and the EU, and is launching a campaign to spur congressional action. But make no mistake about it… it’s not only big companies that are being hurt. Anyone who places their work on the Internet is at risk, and Google has made it much more likely that high-quality creative work will be found and stolen.


As an amateur woodworker, I’ve made many drawers. Each drawer is a project in itself. It needs to be near-perfect in order to work properly, but the work can be very repetitive, since you seldom make just one. Moreover, nobody appreciates the time and effort that goes into a well-crafted door.  Drawers are the bane of most woodworkers!

As you work on drawer after drawer, boredom sets in.  You lose your enthusiasm for the project.  You lose your sense of creativity and craftsmanship.  All you care about is getting the damn drawers done.

And it shows.  The person who would never have noticed a neat set of perfect drawers will certainly notice a drawer that is slightly misaligned, or one that doesn’t slide smoothly.  More importantly, you will know that the work is less than it could have been.

But it needn’t be that way.  When working on drawers, don’t think about them.  Don’t think about the finished cabinet.  Don’t think about the project at all.  Instead, focus on each step. Make each dovetail cut as perfect as it can be.  Make each board planed as smooth and even as you can possible make it.

In the end, the drawers will work perfectly, and the cabinet will be beautiful…  and only you will know the effort that went into it.

If you want to be a master cabinet maker, stop thinking about cabinets.  Make lots of drawers.


This article is not strictly related to business, but I think it offers some good information for any small organization.

Thanks to the Orchard Valley Ceramic Arts Guild, a California non-profit corporation, for sharing their experiences.

Many people are interested in starting a club or group, but don’t know where to start. Groups provide a good setting to exchange information and to socialize. They can also accomplish things that individuals can’t, such as sponsoring workshops, organizing group activities, or operating group facilities.

The purpose of this paper is to share the experiences of one group: artists who formed a successful local “guild.” Although this particular example is from the art world, the lessons learned can be applied to any type of group.

The Orchard Valley Ceramic Arts Guild is headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. (We chose the name “Orchard Valley” to invoke the heritage of California’s past, rather than referring to a particular geographic area.)

The group was started informally in mid-2000; we began signing up members in January, 2001. The group has grown to approximately 200 members, and conducts workshops, exhibits, sales, and group activities. We were fortunate to be in an area with a lot of active ceramic artists, so we were able to grow quickly, but we know of groups with as few as 9 members that are still able to accomplish a lot by working together.

We hope that our experiences can help others who are interested in forming a club or group!

Getting Started

First, you will need a core group. One person can be the catalyst, but it takes a lot of work to get something like this started – you’ll need a group of people who are excited about the idea, and willing to put in some work to make it happen. In our case, we eventually had a group of 7 people who met regularly to plan, and who each put in a little seed money ($30) to get things off the ground.

We started out by creating a mission statement, which is just a short statement of what the organization is all about. We wanted to create a supportive group, where members work together to help and encourage one another, so this is emphasized in our mission statement.

Under the umbrella of the mission statement, we then decided on the activities we wanted to offer, and we put a person in charge of planning each of these activities: newsletter, website, regular meetings, workshops, and sale. (We later added special events like group pit firings.) We wanted to have some activities in the works when we started recruiting members, so we could tell them what they would get in exchange for their membership dues!

You will need someone who is comfortable with budgeting and spreadsheets to act as treasurer. The treasurer, working with other members of your core team, will develop your first budget, This means figuring out what your activities will cost, estimating how many members you can recruit, and setting your dues to cover your expenses (with a little left over for future projects).

We identified local places where we could reach other potters: schools, clay suppliers, etc, in preparation for our public “launch.” One of our initial team members was responsibility for recruiting, and she put together a nice brochure for us to distribute. It also helped to do a lot of personal networking! We kicked off our recruiting drive with a party that we organized, and we invited every potter we could find. At the party, we “talked up” the guild and tried to convey our excitement… we actually signed up about a dozen new members that night, and another couple of dozen in the first few months. We now have a meeting every other month. Meetings always have refreshments, usually a guest speaker, but plenty of time to socialize and chat about clay stuff. Members often bring new work to show, or questions for other members.

By the way, the owner of our local clay store has become an enthusiastic supporter. He lets us use his shop for small workshops, post flyers there, and so on. If you have local art suppliers and shops, get them on your side as early as possible!

The rest of this page contains some lessons we’ve learned over the past couple of years.

Professional Appearance

We were lucky to have a professional website developer, and a professional graphic artist, among our early members. From the start, our website, membership brochure, and newsletter looked very good. We didn’t realize how important this was until much later. Once we all got to know one another, many of our new members told us they joined because the group looked professional – they were proud to be associated with it.

So, although it was a lucky accident for us, we’ve learned the importance of a professional appearance. When deciding who will do your design work, don’t just take the first volunteer! We actually held a competition for our logo design. We have a committee review event flyers and other material to make sure it meets the group standards and conveys the image we want to promote. I hope this doesn’t sound too fussy – we just found that if you want people to join you, then you must look like a group they’d want to be part of.

If you need help in creating a professional image for your group, we recommend LunaGraphica, a boutique advertising and design firm specializing in the entertainment and arts markets.

Website and E-Mail

Electronic communication is becoming critical to the visibility of any group!
We found our website to be absolutely essential. I don’t think we could have succeeded without it. It’s the one place members and the public can go for up-to-date information about the guild and guild activities. When you meet a new potter and tell them about the guild, you don’t need to have a brochure handy – just give them the address of the website. If you forget the date of the next meeting, check the website. Want to sign up for the next workshop? Go to the website.

We publish a paper newsletter 6 times a year – people like to get something tangible. But between issues, we send out news and announcements to a mailing list of our members. More than 90% of our members have e-mail addresses – this may not be true in your area. We established a buddy system, so people with e-mail pass on important news to the relatively small number who don’t use e-mail.

Our website now gets about 30-40 visitors a day, and we see big spikes (extra visits) before our events, so we know people are using the website to get information.

We’re also starting to use e-mail to reach customers.

Our guild has built up a mailing list of regular street addresses, which we use to send out postcards before our sales. We won’t abandon that any time soon – it works quite well for us – but we’re also starting to collect e-mail addresses from our customers. We have about 4000 street addresses, and so far just 600 e-mail addresses on our customer list. We send out postcards, and then send out a “reminder” to our e-mail list. But in the future (perhaps a few years from now), I believe we will rely on e-mail to promote our sales and events. So, we’re working hard to build up that e-mail list!

Legal Structure

We initially organized as an informal association. In other words, we didn’t have any legal standing. We found a local bank that gave us a free checking account. That was fine for the first few months, but it started to be a problem as we grew:

When we tried to rent facilities, we found that our local community center and other places didn’t want to deal with us unless we were a legal corporation. They also had much lower fees if we could show that we were a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation.

Our postage bills started to get pretty high when we publicized our sales and workshops. Again, the postage rates are much lower for non-profit corporations.

Our officers started to worry about liability. If someone got hurt at a group event, and decided to sue the organizers, none of us wanted to lose our businesses, savings, etc.

So we ultimately decided to incorporate, and apply for 501©3 status from the IRS. We bought a do-it-yourself book from Nolo Press to learn about the process and get started. Ultimately, we decided to hire a lawyer, but by reading the book first, we were able to lay the groundwork and ask our lawyer the right questions. We had a fund-raising drive to come up with the almost $2000 needed to have a lawyer do it for us. That includes the various filing fees, plus the lawyer’s fee. The incorporation process and costs vary from state to state, and I’m sure our California laws are more complicated than many places. My advice would be:

  • Think seriously, in advance, about the need to incorporate
  • Read the Nolo Press book
  • If you’re not completely comfortable handling the process on your own, start networking to see if you can find a lawyer who will help you out for free or at a discount!

Note that, if you apply for 501(c)3 status, you will need to show that your group provides a public benefit, so you’ll want to include public education (or charitable contributions) in your mission statement and activities. (It’s a little easier to become a 501(c)4, or member benefit corporation, but you don’t get all the advantages of 501(c)3 status. Your lawyer, or the Nolo Press book, can explain the differences.)

At any event, it was a long road for us, but we are now a tax-exempt public benefit corporation.


If you are starting a co-op studio or gallery, you will need contracts with your members. The contract should clearly define the rights and responsibilities of both the members and the co-op. It should also clearly define how the contract can be terminated by either party. Finally, it should specify a process for resolving conflicts. I recommend that the contract require binding arbitration through a properly accredited arbitrator. Otherwise, legal costs arising out of conflicts can bankrupt your group, even if you win!

You may also need to create contracts if you are hiring instructors for workshops, or running sales or other types of programs.You can write up the terms of your contract in clear, understandable English, then have a lawyer draft the “legal” wording for you. Be sure the lawyer understands your intent, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand the resulting contract, or if you don’t think it says what you wanted. The leaders of your group will probably need to go over the contract many times with prospective members, so be sure you understand it!

That’s All for Now!

This short summary of our experiences should give you a lot to think about, and probably raise many questions!

For more articles and resources for artists and art groups, visit

Advertising and promoting your business is expensive, so it’s important to get the most from your advertising budget. That means understanding how to get the most from your ad agency or graphic designer.

Let’s start by understanding the difference between agencies and designers. Typically, a designer will work on specific projects under your direction. For example, you may request an ad design for your Halloween event, and give the designer your copy (the text) and the party theme. You are responsible for booking the ad with the newspaper, getting flyers printed, having posters made, etc.

An ad agency plays a more active role in planning the promotion of your events. They can work with you to plan your ad schedule, suggest the right mix of promotional tools to reach your audience, help you evaluate the effectiveness of your promotions, and negotiate ad rates and printing rates on your behalf. They can also help with choosing promotional themes and writing ad copy. Of course, you will pay more for these additional services – but you may actually save money by letting your agency do your negotiations and booking.

Whether you are working with a designer or a full-service agency, it pays to plan ahead. If you can plan your advertising a year in advance you should be able to lock in much better ad rates. Leaving a couple of extra weeks when printing flyers will save you “rush printing” charges. And giving your designer extra lead time will almost certainly get you a better looking result!

A typical small agency might require final “concept and copy” at least a week in advance of newspaper deadlines, four weeks in advance of distribution for printed materials like flyers (to avoid rush charges), and six to eight weeks in advance for complicated projects (such as die-cut and folded invitations). Many business owners don’t understand why final copy is required so far in advance… they ask the designer to do a design, and add the text later. But in a good design, text and typography are very important to the look of the piece. So if you want your advertising to look good, plan on providing the copy when you give the job to the designer.

The above lead times allow time for the client to proof the final artwork, and make minor corrections, based on a single design. But when working with a new designer, or when promoting an important event, you may want to see several design concepts, and possibly several versions of the artwork. This can add one to two weeks to the schedule (more for very complex ads), and of course will cost more than a single design.

When ordering the work, make sure the designer understands your market and the image you are going for. For example, you may look at a design and say, “That’s not cool enough for our market.” Another business manager may look at the same ad and say, “Whoa, that’s way too weird for our customers.” Show your designer ads you like (and don’t like) to help them understand the look you want for your business.

But what if you don’t like the designs your agency produces?

Well, you obviously shouldn’t run an ad that you feel really damages your image, doesn’t convey your message, or isn’t what you requested. But at the same time, avoid the temptation to micro-manage the design. You are paying your designer for their professional skills; their judgment is probably better than yours when it comes to layout, typefaces, color choices, etc. Also, if designers feel that the work they do for you is going to be extensively changed, they won’t give you their best efforts.

So find an agency or designer whose work you like, and trust their design sense. If you find you consistently don’t like the work they’re producing, talk to them about the problem, and if necessary find another design firm. But don’t spend your time trying to “fix” the designs.

It’s also very important that one person from your business deals with the design firm, and has final authority on all design and copy decisions (many agencies will insist on this). If a designer is getting conflicting input from several people, they can’t do a good job for you. If you need to, talk about the design with everyone at your business who is involved in the decision… but select one person to convey your feedback to the design firm. (A good design firm can schedule meetings with clients where everyone can contribute ideas and feedback – as long as one person represents the client when it comes to final input and decisions.) Note that this can be complicated when co-op advertisers or sponsors are involved. Typically the person or company being invoiced provides the input, unless they specifically designate a different person.

So far we’ve talked about printed advertising and promotion, but for most businesses, the internet has also become an important promotional tool. Print design, web design, and e-mail promotions require different skills and tools, so you may use different firms for each. However, there are some advantages if you can find a single firm to handle all your needs. The design firm can make sure that your print and web communications project a consistent image. And you will only need to provide your event information and promotional goals to one firm, who can then make sure that the print ads are placed, the website is updated, and the e-mail invitations are sent. Some firms can also handle other design tasks, including menus, signs, and promotional items.

Typically, in order to get this range of services, you’ll need to work with a mid-size agency or design firm. There are advantages and disadvantages to choosing large or small agencies:

An individual designer (free-lancer) or very small agency can give you personal attention and often lower rates. But you will need to work around their schedule if they are out sick or on vacation, and you will need to find a new designer if they change jobs. Individuals and very small agencies probably cannot provide a complete package of design services.

Mid-size firms give your somewhat less individual attention, and may charge a higher rate than free-lancers. But on the plus side, they can provide a broader range of services, and they have several designers on staff so they can accommodate your needs even if someone is out, or if you need a lot of work done for a key event.

Large firms can offer a full range of services and a large staff to meet all your needs. Unless you are a large account, you will probably get little personal attention. (In fact, in a large firm, the smaller accounts are often given to junior designers and trainees.)

So, how should you choose?

Above all, find a firm whose work you like! Ask for samples and references, and if possible meet with the designers before making a selection.

Decide if you want to hire a design firm (and manage the ad planning and placement yourself) or an ad agency to provide more assistance with your promotional planning (most ad agencies will also provide “design only” packages if you prefer).

Find a firm that is large enough to meet your needs, but small enough to care about your business. We typically find that local, neighborhood businesses are best served by free-lance designers or very small firms; regional or metro-market businesses do well with mid-size firms, and major national companies get the best results from large firms (and can afford to pay for them).

Talk to the firm about how you will measure the effectiveness of your advertising. It’s a good idea to try different types of advertising over time to see what works best for you. Consider coupons and special offers to measure how many people are responding to your ads.

Remember that even the best advertising campaign gets stale over time. Plan for (and budget for) occasional reworking you advertising. Most designers respond very well to an opportunity to do something new for a client, and you will get the best results from both your design firm and your customers if you freshen your advertising every 6-12 months.

Thanks to LunaGraphica Inc for input and suggestions on this article! Lunagraphica is a boutique advertising and design agencyspecializing in the arts, entertainment and youth markets.

Most businesses understand the importance of an effective website. Many put a lot of time and effort into their websites, only to miss some basics. The following tips are things you can do right away to improve the effectiveness of your website.

  • Hire a professional website designer. A few years ago, just having a website put you a step ahead of your competitors. Today the competition has gotten tougher. A poorly designed, amateurish website can actually drive customers away from your business. It’s worthwhile paying for a professional design.
  • Make sure your website is FAST. Cheap web hosting services are often very slow. Poorly designed web pages can also be a problem. Studies have shown that web users will leave a page and try someplace else after just a few seconds! So make sure your site is well designed, hosted by a high-performance service, and loads fast.
  • Include your business name, type of business, and geographical location on your home page as text (not just in an image). Search engines will index this information so that people can find you. Talk to your web designer about the best keywords and search terms to incorporate on your website.
  • Include a short description of your business and what it does (2-3 sentences). Put this near the top of your home page, and search engines will typically show it in the search results. Be sure to include the hours you are open!
  • Have a page for directions. Include the address of your business, plus directions or a link to one of the online mapping services like Expedia, MapQuest or Yahoo Maps.
    Include a complete mailing address with ZIP / Postal Code! (People still use snail-mail to communicate.)
  • Include a contact phone number, if possible.
  • Include a contact e-mail address. If you don’t want to list an e-mail address (which can be “harvested” by spammers), provide a contact “form” that will generate an e-mail message to you. Your webmaster or hosting provider can advise you on how to set this up.
  • Submit your site to search engines and various listing services. Almost all web traffic comes from just a few search engines; it’s important to submit to Google, MSN, and Yahoo. Note that directories such as Yahoo have started to charge for listings, but still offer a free listing for non-profit groups.
  • Ask other groups and businesses if they will link to you from their websites. This will, over time, increase your rank in search engines.
  • Make sure you keep your site up to date! Studies have shown that about a third of the links on the internet are out of date. A site with broken links and out-of-date information creates a very poor impression.
  • Include your website address on everything that your business prints or publishes.
  • See if your hosting company provides website traffic statistics. Checking your traffic is one way to tell if your business advertising is working. (Did traffic go up the day you ran a newspaper ad? By how much?)

In a future column I’ll talk about more advanced web techniques – but just following these basic tips will improve most business websites!

Recently I needed to order a custom neon sign. I searched the web and found several companies that could do what I needed. I used an online form on one of the sites to ask a few questions, and sent e-mail to a couple of others. The answers came back via e-mail, and I chose one company over the others.

I went back to their website and I was very surprised to find that the company is located in my town, just a few miles from my business!

I had them make the sign, and I was very happy with the results. But the important lesson here is that I found the business via the Internet. I never saw their ad in the chamber of commerce newsletter or their listing in the yellow pages; I didn’t even consult those resources. It was just a lucky coincidence for me that this company was local (because shipping neon signs can be expensive).

I’ve learned that I can save a lot of money by searching the web for my business needs. My flyers are printed in Florida; office supplies are shipped directly from one of the big online companies; tools come from a company in Washington, and so on.

As a purchaser of goods and services, my business can take advantage of the very best deals anywhere in the US!

But it’s equally true that as a provider of goods and services, my business must now compete with others all across the country.

That means several things:

  • As I small business, I need a good Internet marketing plan and an effective website.
  • I need a compelling value story that will lead customers to choose my business over the hundreds of others they will find on the web.
  • I need to use my website to get new customers and retain my existing customers, which may require me to rethink my entire business process.

It’s easy to ignore these challenges when you are faced with all the day-to-day challenges of running your business. Some small businessmen think they are immune to Internet competition. Just remember – that’s what your local bookstore might have said before

For help creating a professional website for your business, we recommend LunaGraphica.

I frequently hear small business owners talking about how much money they’ve saved by “doing it themselves.”

The “it” may be building a website, doing electrical wiring, designing a newspaper ad, or setting up an accounting system. And in almost all cases, it’s a mistake for the business owner to do the job!

When the owner takes on an unfamiliar task, the results aren’t going to be nearly as good as results achieved by a professional. In some cases, the tasks may even require specific professional knowledge that the owner lacks. As a result:

  • The website isn’t designed to be indexed by search engines, and it’s difficult to navigate. It fails to bring in any new business.
  • The electrical wiring can’t properly handle the load. Circuit breakers trip frequently, and the wiring eventually needs to be redone by a professional.
  • The newspaper ad doesn’t reproduce well because the owner was unfamiliar with the technical requirements for submission. Moreover, the amateur design creates a “Mom and Pop” impression that is exactly the opposite of the upscale image the business owner wanted.
  • The accounting system doesn’t properly categorize information for tax purposes. At the end of the year, the business owner has to pay his accountant for many hours of extra work to reorganize the year’s receipts.

But the likelihood of poor results isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the biggest concern. The fact is that most small businesses owe the continued success to one or two key factors… things that the business needs to do very well in order to thrive. Time spent on unfamiliar tasks, including the time needed to learn the necessary skills, can be very costly when it takes away from the business owner’s main job.

In other words, if you run an auto repair shop, your time is much better spent repairing cars, or supervising and training your crew, than in building a website or setting up an accounting system.

If something needs to be done for your business, take the do-it-yourself approach only if:

  1. You already have the required skills at a professional level, or
  2. The skills you must learn will be very important to your business in the future.

But what if you can’t afford a professional to do the job?

Look at alternatives. You don’t have the skills to do the job… but do you know someone who does? Can you barter services with a qualified professional? Or, can you make trade-offs in other areas of your business (for example, foregoing a new sign in order to pay for professionally designed newspaper ads).

Above all, keep in mind the time you will spend when you take on an unfamiliar task, and think about what you else could do with that time to advance your business.

I was going to call this column “Do You Need a Business Plan?” But in truth, every business needs a business plan. It’s a common misconception that business plans are used only for raising capital, as in “my bank wants to see a business plan before they will approve a loan,” or, “I need a business plan so I can get venture funding.”

But a business plan is really just what it sounds like: a plan for running your business. It’s an essential tool for making sure that nothing is overlooked.

The business plan will usually be divided into sections relating to the key activities of your business, such as Sales, Hiring, Manufacturing, and so on. In each section you will list the major goals and tasks to be accomplished, and the steps needed to accomplish them. The steps should be in the form of a schedule, with a clear description of when each task will be done, who will perform the task, and what resources are needed. For very small businesses you may plan a year in advance, but a more typical planning timeframe is three to five years. Obviously your plan will be more detailed for the first year, and things will change over time – I’ll discuss that a little later.

In additional to these “operations” sections, your plan will have some informational sections that will be used in setting the operational goals. For example, what is the market opportunity that your company is pursuing? How do you know that the opportunity is real… what research have you done? Who are your major competitors, and what are their strengths and weaknesses? The information sections are especially important if you are using your business plan to raise capital, but they should not be neglected even if your company is self-funded. The information you gather about the market and your competitors is literally the foundation of your business plan.

The final key piece of your business plan is the financial section. At its simplest, this is just a running budget showing your projected expenses and income on a month-by-month basis, for the next 1 to 5 years. You can create this with a spreadsheet program.

In the operations section of your plan, you included a schedule of tasks, and that schedule should match your financial plan. For example, if you said that you would start advertising in April, you would spend $1500 per month, and the result would be a 20% increase in sales, then the $1500 per month advertising expense, as well as the increased sales, should be included in your financial plan.

Banks and venture firms will require the financial plan to be in a specific format; you may need an accountant to prepare this. But even if that’s the case, start will a financial plan that you create and understand. Make sure the financial plan matches your operational plans, and be sure you understand how every number was determined!

You’ll learn a lot in creating your business plan, and avoid many mistakes. But that’s just the start. Once your business plan is complete, don’t put it away! Consult it regularly. Be sure that you are on schedule to accomplish your operational goals. Be sure your actual income and expenses match your financial plan. And if reality doesn’t match your plan, figure out why and adjust the plan accordingly.

One of my clients initially projected that 65% of her business revenue would come from services her business provided, and 35% from product sales. Six months after the business was launched, we discovered that, although total revenue was very close to the plan, the ratio of service to product revenue was exactly the reverse of what had been projected.

This raised several possibilities. Perhaps not enough effort was being spent to promote the service side of the business. Or perhaps the product portion of the business was a simply bigger opportunity than originally thought, and more emphasis should be placed there! In either case, my client needed to do some additional thinking and update the business plan based on what she had learned. She talked to clients, met with product suppliers, and eventually decided to expand this portion of her business, resulting in significantly faster growth than originally projected.

Based on experiences such as this, I recommend that small businesses review their business plan at the end of each quarter, and that they conduct a thorough update of the plan at least once a year.

Want to learn more about business plans? A great place to start is SCORE, a free resource for small businesses and a partner with the US Small Business Administration.

Learn more about Starting you Business.

Small businesses have always known the importance of word of mouth. Many successful businesses have been built on word of mouth referrals, and many have been killed by bad word of mouth.

But now the landscape is changing, making word of mouth more important than ever – only now, that word of mouth is being communicated on the Internet.

People – your customers – are turning to the Internet as their primary source of information on products and services. Instead of opening the yellow pages of their phone book, they turn to Yahoo or Google. And in addition to websites and listings for local businesses, they are finding ratings and reviews!

Sites like and ePinions pioneered product rating systems. In some categories, these ratings have become essential to a product’s success: more than 60% of consumer electronics purchasers report that they consult online ratings before making a purchase decision!

Ratings have also become common is a few other business categories, such as restaurants and hotels.

But the online ratings explosion is just starting; Internet entrepreneurs are demonstrating that virtually anything can be rated online., launched in 1999, allows college students to rate – well, professors. The site has accumulated over 3 million ratings, and has spun off another site,, aimed at high school and elementary students. has the most comprehensive database of apartment ratings, with almost 250,000 reviews. was formed to allow patients to rate their doctors., allows patrons to rate nightclubs and bars (perhaps while recovering from hangovers?)

Rating sites are even risking the wrath of the legal profession: provides attorney ratings and reviews.

All of these sites feature a fair share of rants and raves. Many of the comments are semi-coherent ramblings, often typed with CAPS LOCK down. But surprisingly, over time and with enough ratings, a fairly accurate picture emerges. Some reviewers provide well-thought reviews and useful information. And the sites are being visited and read!

The ratings phenomena may not have reached your industry or your community, but it probably will. So what can you do about it?

First, be aware of ratings sites. Use a search engine to look for rating sites in your area and business. (Search for things like landscaper ratings in Pittsburgh or hair salon reviews in Sacramento.) You may find that your business is already listed on a rating site. If it is, make sure that the basic listing information (business name, location, website) is correct, and if not, contact the site operator. If your business is not listed, see if there is a way to add your listing. Do not pay for this service! Legitimate rating sites are not supported by the businesses being rated! (However, a few sites offer enhanced “listings” for a small fee. Consider paying for this if the site seems to be well run and has a lot of traffic.)

Check the rating sites regularly. You might actually get some good information on how customers see your business, and where you need to make improvements.

Encourage your patrons to rate your business. Satisfied customers will give you good ratings. (Don’t try to “flood” a rating site with bogus reviews; many of these sites use algorithms to detect the source of ratings, and may even remove businesses that try to cheat.)

If you get a bad review, there’s probably not much you can do about it. The rating and review sites are on solid legal ground, and most will not remove bad reviews. However, some sites have a mechanism for responding to a review, so be sure to ask about this. If nothing else, you can submit your own review and calmly refute the complaints of other reviewers. Be careful to stay calm and professional, and not get into online debates that can damage your credibility.

In the end, business success is still based on word of mouth – but now more people are listening.

For a great list of business and professional rating sites, visit The Ratingz Network at

For more information about rating and review websites, visit the Rating and Review Professional Association at

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time looking at online reviews on the many online rating sites. I’ve noticed some interesting patterns.

First, the ratings don’t follow a “normal” distribution, in which most of the ratings fall in the middle. Instead, there tend to be clusters of high ratings and low ratings… often for the same product or service. This really isn’t surprising: people are most likely to write a review if they feel very strongly about something.

The high ratings generally extol the features or services provided, often at a low price. Stepping back, it really is remarkable how good products have become. It’s clear from the reviews that most people are very happy with most of their purchases.

But things get very interesting when we read the negative reviews. Some are complaints about features or product quality… but a large number are complaints about service. If a product breaks or fails in some way, the purchaser is unhappy. But if the manufacturer or seller does not provide prompt, courteous, and satisfactory service, the buyer becomes really angry – and that’s when the very negative reviews get written.

This carries over to the offline world as well. Very few people go out of their way to tell their acquaintances about a product that wasn’t very good. But if someone has a bad experience getting the product fixed, they will go to great lengths to tell everyone they can about the terrible service they received.

The lesson here is simple: take customer service seriously! When a customer has a complaint about a product, he is already unhappy. You as a business have an opportunity to turn him into a happy (or at least satisfied) customer, or into a very angry ex-customer.

Four simple things will head off becoming a “bad service” story:

  1. Respond quickly
  2. Respond courteously
  3. Work with the customer. It’s true that customers are sometimes unreasonable, and you can’t always give the customer what he would like. But be very clear that you are willing to work with the customer to arrive at a fair solution.
  4. Follow up to be sure that customer’s problem is resolved.

Providing reasonable service is pretty simple – it’s amazing more companies don’t do it.

Learn more at the Rating and Review Professional Association.