If you had to guess, which theme parks would you say are among the top 5 most recommended theme parks in the U.S.?

  • Six Flags? Nope.
  • Universal Studios? Try again.
  • Sea World? Not even close.

The top 5 theme parks in the U.S., according to TripAdvisor, include a couple Disney parks, Shipwreck Island, and one you may not immediately recognize — Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana.

Why? The Indiana-based theme park can attribute the majority of their online success to an average 4.7-star rating from more than a whopping 5,000 Google reviews, paired with around 1,800 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor.

What does Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari have that the bigger theme parks don’t? (Besides unlimited sunscreen and soda?) Absolutely nothing.

That’s the best part about online ratings and reviews sites, and even online listings sites. They take the power out of the hands of big businesses (and their even bigger wallets), and they put it back in the hands of any business (and their happy customers) willing to put in a little effort.

Making Online Reviews Your Biggest Asset

Think about your marketing goals. For the most part, you may think the most important aspect of marketing is to get the word out. That’s only partially true.

Your marketing strategy should also be focused on building and protecting your reputation.

Online review sites can help you do just that. If you use them to your advantage, they can help you build a sort of virtual moat around your business. Suddenly that “moat” becomes an asset. You can use this asset to protect your business against one-off, unhappy customers who could otherwise damage your reputation online with negative reviews and poor ratings.

Now, you can’t build a “moat” of reviews around your business with just a few reviews. You need more reviews than you’ve ever had before. Not just any reviews — reviews that reflect just how great your business truly really is (more on this later).

The problem? It’s knowing where to start.

The even bigger problem? It’s thinking you don’t have the tools or capability to do it at the same scale as bigger brands.

Instead, model your online review strategy after the Holiday World & Splashin’ Safaris of the amusement park world. Just when you think only Disney and Universal Studios can make a splash, challenge that thought. Because anyone can.

Beating Big Business at Their Own Game

It wasn’t happenstance that an amusement park with less buying power and less influence than the bigger parks outperformed them online with their ratings and reviews. It took a little effort and a lot of knowing the right steps to take to make it happen.

Here’s how smaller businesses can use ratings and reviews to build your online presence in spite of the big guys.

Target only the most trusted sites.

You may already pay attention to a couple third-party review sites pretty closely.

In case you need a refresher, here are the big boys on the online reviews playground:

  • Yelp
  • Google
  • Yahoo!
  • Bing
  • Merchant Circle
  • Angie’s List

That list doesn’t include social sites like Facebook, which is easily becoming one of the biggest online ratings and reviews players. In fact, 81% of U.S. and U.K. Facebookers surveyed trust recommendations and reviews from their friends on Facebook. And 78% even said posts shared by companies they follow also influence their purchasing decisions.

When managing your reviews online, focus on the top sites for your particular industry. If you own a café or a coffee shop, start with Yelp, Google and Facebook. If you’re a home contractor, be more concerned with Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau. Spend the majority of the time you have dedicated to looking after your online reputation on these sites.

I get it. Focusing on a few review sites can be hard. As a proud business owner, you want to read, even respond to, each and every review across the web. But just like anything else on your to-do list, trying to focus on too much at once will have you spreading yourself way too thin.

Focus on the many, not the few.

Don’t get wooed by the hottest, newest review sites for your industry. And don’t get distracted by one or two outlier reviews on sites you aren’t familiar with. It may be tempting to direct your attention to these reviews, especially if they contain less-than-shining, fewer-than-5-star ratings. But doing so is actually counterproductive. Why? It’s all about volume.

I mentioned this in a previous blog where I explained the difference between first-party reviews and third-party reviews. Your average online ratings depend on the volume of reviews you have when averaged together, not how many negative review you have in total. Basically, the more reviews you have, the less negative reviews and ratings can impact your overall score.

So, focus on the hundreds (hopefully thousands) of reviews you have (or hope to have soon) on the review sites we just discussed. These reviews will be what actually affects your reputation with consumers and search engines.

Swallow your ego, and stay engaged.

Now that you know where to focus your energy, it’s time to think about how to focus your energy.

The two biggest things you can do for your online ratings and reviews are:

  1. Respond to reviews you get.
  2. Be proactive in generating more of them.

That’s it. Engage with the reviews you get, and get as many more reviews as you can. (Unsure how to generate more online reviews? We can help there, too.)

Unfortunately, once the volume of reviews for your business is up, you’re going to notice something you may not appreciate. With more positive reviews undoubtedly comes more negative reviews. It’s your job to resist the urge to pop off and give them a piece of your mind.

Instead, have a plan in place for responding to reviews both positive and negative.

Your responses to positive reviews may be as simple as, “Thanks! Hope to see you again soon.”

It’s equally important, but a lot more difficult, to respond to negative reviews.

When you see a new negative review, take a deep breath, and step away from your computer or mobile device. Remember the customer probably wrote the review out of frustration instead of malice and that it’s just one review among many others. Then, decide how to respond.

The best reason to respond to negative reviews is to show other potential customers you’re an active, conscientious business owner who’s willing to fix issues that arise. Make sure your responses do just that. Keep them short, kind and apologetic. Then, offer a solution to the complaint. (Still coming up empty? Use our templates for responding to negative reviews as inspiration.)

Run your business with reviews in mind.

Tired of fielding negative reviews in the first place? There’s a better way to make sure the reviews you generate help your business shine.

Instead of worrying about negative reviews after the damage has already been done, conduct business with online ratings and reviews in mind.

Handle every customer interaction with the understanding that each customer could be your next online review. Be easy to do business with — remarkable even. Ask yourself every day, “Am I running my business the way I want to, or am I running it the way my customers want me to?”