In an economy where things are already tight, small businesses have come to rely on non-traditional ways to market their businesses effectively. Finding their usual advertising budgets tightened up, many merchants are adding bang for their buck by utilizing promotional websites like or For little or no money, merchants can promote their businesses in style and offer photos, coupons, blogs, and contact information without any out-of-pocket expense. The downside? Business “ratings” are displayed for everyone to see.

Not necessarily a bad thing, right? Merchant accountability displayed with cute little stars – up to five if you’re a “good, reliable” merchant – but that rating only holds water if the ratings system the site uses is fair. Unfortunately, too many of these free sites allow anyone to register a “review” anonymously – which is detrimental to the merchant using the service. The solution, according to the site owners? Well for a nominal fee, you can “better manage” your website traffic. Oh, ok. So if I’m a business I can expect to see bad ratings unless I pay your monthly charge. Sounds a little “bait-and-switchy” to me.

The other sad thing about this is that competition being what it is, merchants are taking the opportunity to out-blog each other, out rate each other, and out web-vertise each other. It’s enough to make one wonder, with all of this online sniping, when do the business owners actually have time to man their businesses? Do they have to dedicate so much time to damage control in cyber space that their neglecting their businesses irl? And how fair is it to use ratings systems when it seems like a new one pops up over night, while old reviews are always out there floating around waiting to be unearthed?

I agree that online reviewing can be a helpful tool – but if the business is to be held accountable, then so, too, should the reviewer. Reviews should contain name and contact information to be viable. Otherwise, it’s likely that merchants are dealing with the nearest competitor trying to sabotage their best efforts. As long as there are competitors in any given industry, there will be pot-shots and back-biting, so now we can add ‘cyber-sniping’ to that list of war games.