Last Updated Jul 5, 2011 2:03 PM EDT
Sales for Susan DiMezza's Erdenheim, PA-based online women's retail shop, shop4sparkles.com, grew steadily throughout its first year of business in 2010. Annual sales reached $125,000, and all signs suggested 2011 would be a good year. DiMezza's goal for the year was to increase sales to $150,000 and expand her staff from two to five.
Last winter, DiMezza, who is also a landlord, learned first-hand how much one online complaint can affect her business. A disgruntled tenant posted a complaint about her to the Rental Protection Agency's website. Although unrelated to DiMezza's business, the complaint had devastating consequences for Shop4Sparkles.
In January, during an unexpected slump in sales, DiMezza Googled her business name to see if she could find the reason for the low sales. The first search result was a post that read: "Have you been scammed by Sue DiMezza from Shop4Sparkles too?"
Scamfound.com, a large online forum where wronged customers can share complaints about businesses, had picked up the rental complaint. Because the tenant's complaint referenced DiMezza's business name, the site posted it as a complaint against Shop4Sparkles.
"It taught me to Google myself every day," she says. About 30% of her customers found her business through search engines, and even returning customers would come across the post while searching for discounts or promo codes. "Personally, if I was a customer and saw something like that I wouldn't proceed," she says. In one month, her sales dropped by almost 75%.
Fixing the company's online reputation problem took dogged diligence. First DiMezza went to the original source -- The Rental Protection Agency -- and proved that the complaint was not related to her business. "My business name never should have been associated with the complaints. He got my business information because I was emailing him from my business account," she says. The two had already been to court about his rental claim, so she had the paperwork to prove her case to the board. The agency removed the original complaint, but her battle was far from over: She still needed to get Scamfound to remove the post that ranked No. 1 on Google.
Scamfound was accustomed to people attempting to remove posts, and thus made it difficult to do so. After tenacious emailing -- always with a different site employee -- she learned what information she needed, and gathered it. This included information about the small claims suit with her tenant, and detailed information about her business. The post was finally removed just before Memorial Day weekend. She is still fighting to get the IPO address for the post to sue the person who posted it for damages.
Now an Internet search for Shop4Sparkles surfaces positive blog posts and reviews from online style guides, just as it did before the SEO nightmare. Sales are returning to normal and DiMezza is recovering from the damage but she's still in court with the case.
"I learned a lot. Now I'm giving more attention to each and every customer. If anyone is upset about any little thing, I give him or her a discount or a promo code for their next purchase. I want to make sure that whatever experience they have with us ends on a positive note," she says. "You never know what people can do. One illegitimate complaint ruined a whole quarter."
And, to prevent the problem from happening again she hired an "Internet wiz" who has set up a query that automatically alerts her when "Shop4Sparkles" is mentioned anywhere on the web. "This has enabled me to be aware of how people are interacting daily with Shop4Sparkles on all levels," she says.