Pool and spa professionals are well aware that consumers frequently use review sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp. From the business owner’s standpoint, it works well as long as the reviews are positive. But as too many businesses have learned, even a single negative comment online can cause headaches. It doesn’t matter whether the complaint is accurate; the fact is, when you see a negative post about your company, it feels like the damage has been done. While most review sites make it possible to write a rebuttal, there are typically strings attached. So what should you do?

For this article, we spoke with pool and spa industry professionals as well as a variety of home improvement and maintenance contractors about their experiences with online reviews. While their opinions ran the gamut, in general, contractors serving higher-end markets are less affected overall by online reviews, while field technicians and repair personnel are more vulnerable.

Out of the blue

Pete Lucey had never heard of Angie’s List when he was notified by the service that someone had posted a negative review about his company, Delaware Valley Pool Supply, in Aldan, Pa. The complaint stated that Lucey hadn’t fixed the leak he had come to repair and the customer wrote that she should have been charged less.

“I had explained to the woman that it was a two- or three-step process to troubleshoot the leak,” says Lucey, “and here Angie’s List was telling me I had to defend myself — to take time out of my day to try to explain what I do as a technician to people who have no idea.”

Lucey posted a response, and Angie’s List staff declared the episode a “stalemate.” The customer never paid her bill, and the complaint has since been removed. In another episode, a man complained on Yelp that Lucey’s store was rude because they declined to guide him through a do-it-yourself installation of a pump that he had purchased from the Internet. The store did not respond, and the original complaint has been “filtered” by Yelp, indicating that it is suspect.

“If we were getting complaints all the time, that would tell you something, but we’re not; those are the only two in the last ten years,” Lucey explains.

His company has been doing business in the same area for 30 years, serving both residential and commercial customers. They have no plans to develop a presence on either Angie’s List or Yelp, and will continue to focus their Internet marketing efforts on maintaining a high-quality web site.

Straight A’s

Mike Durand, owner of Classic Spa Service in Torrance, Calif., has had a much better experience with both Yelp and Angie’s List. “I think reviews are a good way to keep the industry honest and fair,” he says. “There are so many spa guys out there taking advantage of customers, that I used to wonder how they stayed in business. So now, especially with Yelp, people can go in and rate businesses, and I can see that it’s made a big difference — people don’t stand for being pushed around.”

Durand has premium ratings on Angie’s List and Yelp but, he says, “I’ve paid nobody anything,” referring to the advertising programs that both services offer. “Yelp has come to me and said for $350 a month, they can help me ‘get out there,’ as they put it, but I don’t need it.”

Durand has a website full of customer testimonials, as well as personal letters and news articles dating back to the 1980’s, establishing how long he’s been in business.

Standing out

John Divine is a plumbing contractor in Charlotte, N.C.; he has been on Angie’s List since 1999, and has won its Super Service Award every year since 2005. Divine sees Angie’s List as an important source of good leads. “I realize this is an Internet world and people are going to Angie’s List. If I want the lead, I need to show up at the top of that list of plumbing contractors, so I’m willing to pay for the premium placement.” Divine has allocated a large portion of his advertising budget to Angie’s List. He finds that many of the consumers using the service in his area are well-educated and financially stable, and that customers who originally found him there tend to lead to referral jobs. Overall, Divine has found Angie’s List helpful, but he’s aware that the cost of his leads is high.

Divine occasionally gets a negative comment, and he always tries to respond courteously.

“I recently responded to an off-the-wall negative comment, and I had [another] customer tell me that he loved my response, that it made sense and was not extreme, and that’s why he was hiring me.”

Dan Wolt, owner of Zen Windows in Columbus, Ohio, also likes the quality of his Angie’s List leads, saying that “they are far and away the best; they are gold.” Because his company gets consistently high reviews, Wolt says that often, when he gets in touch with a prospect from Angie’s List, they buy from him straight away based solely on his Angie’s ratings.

Like Divine, Wolt spends a good portion of his marketing dollars on Angie’s List, running “Big Deals” and paying to advertise his Super Service Award wins. “It goes to 78,000 people and it’s a full page and costs $500. I make $500 off four windows; how would I turn this down?” he says.

Should you play the game?

Conventional wisdom holds that much of what’s on the Web is worth what you pay for it — nothing. Yet a 2012 survey of 2,862 Internet shoppers conducted by the website Search Engine Land found that a surprising 72 percent of those surveyed actually trust online reviews. On the other hand, according to Bing Liu, a data-mining expert from the University of Illinois at Chicago, as many as a third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake — that is, written by marketers or paid third-party services.

One such service, Ad Blaze, blatantly acknowledges the deception, publishing on its website that “we will write a professional review for your online listing. Each review will come from a unique IP address located in the city of your choice. ... The reviews will be leaked at random times to look natural.” The site provides pricing and a shopping cart; five reviews can be had for $124.75. Ad Blaze further promises “no fake accounts or bots so your reputation is always safe. ... You have unlimited revisions on the review so it will never be submitted until you approve of it.”

For honest business owners who have built their reputations by providing good service at fair prices, the idea that it’s necessary to adopt a different set of rules to survive in the Internet era may be hard to stomach. While reputable contractors will stop short of buying fake reviews, many see nothing wrong with rewarding customers with a gift card or a discount for posting a positive online review.

It’s a “natural progression” from rewarding clients for referrals, says Jeff Moeslein, of Legacy Remodeling in Pittsburgh. A page on Legacy’s website steps clients through the Google, Angie’s List, and Yelp review processes. Positive reviews are acknowledged with a $25 gift card.

“We don’t offer incentives for customers to write good reviews,” says Troy Christ, co-owner of Blue Bottom Pool and Spa Supply in Cedar Park, Texas. “It’s not necessary. Occasionally a happy customer will ask me, ‘Can I write a letter to your supervisor?’ I tell them thanks, I’m an owner, but that they can write something on Yelp if they want to. That’s as far as we go.” The company’s Yelp page has a number of positive reviews and one negative one, which Christ believes happened because a former employee in training exhibited a bad attitude at the sales counter. “Yelp doesn’t make it possible to remove a bad review, though we can respond,” says Christ. “We just left it alone, and it turned out another customer saw it and responded in our favor.”

Blue Bottom purchased a yearlong contract for marketing services from Yelp. In return, Yelp made a professional quality video about the company, which is posted on the company’s website and on its Yelp profile page. Though he believes the move has been helpful, Christ plans to reallocate those marketing dollars — around $4,200 annually — to a co-op television ad campaign partly paid for by the company’s largest supplier. “We’ll lose the video on our profile page, but will be able to keep it on our website. Plus we’ll have a series of new videos to draw from.”

Overall, Blue Bottom’s experience with Yelp has been largely positive. Most of the company’s new business comes from word-of-mouth referrals from existing customers, but “Yelp is the icing on the cake,” says Christ. “Someone will tell their neighbor about us, then that person will check us out on Yelp before coming in. If you spend half an hour with a customer for a $3 O-ring, that guy’s going to come back to you when his $500 pump goes out, because you took the time. Yelp brings them in the door, but our service brings them back.”

Portions of this article first appeared in Remodeling magazine. Freelance writer Don Jackson contributed to this version.