Unhappy customers don’t just go away and take their business elsewhere these days.  Many go online and vent on review sites like Yelp and Amazon.  Just how important are these reviews to other consumers; the answer is very.  In fact, according to a Nielsen study of three years ago, “consumer opinions posted online” came in second after “recommendations from people known” in terms of advertising. 

In today’s highly socially networked world, each of your customers plays a role in advancing your brand – positively or negatively. You’ve indicated how much word of mouth marketing means (see: “Word of mouth marketing rules in small business marketing”), so you want to be sure you know what people are saying about you online in order to protect and manage your reputation.

Here are few other things you can do to get a handle on your online reputation and maintain it:

Search Google: Do this once a week minimally. You can see what others are saying about you. Set Google Alerts, too, so that you get updates on news, blogs and web pages that mention your company.

Search Twitter: Twitter Search is an easy way to see what others are saying and sharing about your company.  You also can set advanced parameters to search by dates, links and even a particular person.

Check top review sites: In addition to sites like Yelp and Yahoo Local, there are others with a specific vertical focus.  Search all that that are relevant to your business and make sure your information is up to date, accurate and complete

Monitor your reviews: Respond to reviews positive and negative. Your responses show you are listening to your customers. However, don’t get defensive when you see a bad review. This is the worst thing you can do. If the information is wrong, tactfully and respectfully set the person straight. If the review includes negative but accurate information, you have an opportunity to apologize and repair the situation.  Also encourage satisfied customers to post positive reviews online about you.

Get involved: Be a part of the online conversation, including the personal sites like Facebook and Twitter, and professional sites like LinkedIn or in the IT world, Spiceworks.  Keep your customers and prospects informed about your company with the positive messages you want to convey but be sure to be authentic. Being active on social networking sites also shows that you are accessible. (Read more about social media as one of the Big Trends for Small Business.)

Managing your managing online will take some time on a daily or weekly basis, but not doing it can cost you far more — loss of customer confidence not to mention business.