CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- With blogs, Twitter and Facebook, everyone can be a critic. While that's good for free speech, it's a double-edged sword for business owners. Compliments and complaints can now broadcast around the world and bad reviews can linger online for months or even years.That's why it's critical to keep tabs on what people are saying about your business online. Large companies can afford to have in-house "online reputation managers" scrolling the Internet, checking for any mentions of their business. But for small businesses, such vigilance might seem difficult, time-consuming and expensive. However, it's easier and cheaper than you might think. And it's just as important for small companies to be mindful of their online image as it is for multinational corporations. When you have a smaller pool of customers, a few disparaging comments can have a proportionately larger impact. Herbert Tabin and Craig Agranoff, reputation-management consultants and co-authors of the recent book Do It Yourself Online Reputation Management, say small-business owners often fail to consider how they're being perceived online until it's too late. "One detractor with an Internet connection can be your enemy," says Tabin. "Either you control what's said about your business or other people will." The first and most basic step is to own the domain names associated with your company. That means not only your business's Web site, but any variations of the name that could be used to disparage your company. Type "www.walmartsucks.com" into a search engine and you'll see that the domain has been reserved, possibly by Wal-Mart ( WMT), to prevent someone from creating a critical Web site. Another way to counteract negative feedback is to increase the amount of positive news about your business. Get involved in community or charity events, and then let the public know by updating your site or sending a message through Twitter or Facebook. "Most people don't go beyond the second page of Google ( GOOG) search results," says Tabin. Your goal is to make sure only positive news shows up on those first two pages. You should try to respond to negative posts quickly. To find out what's being said about your business online, sign up for Google Alerts, a free service that lets you know when your business' name appears online.
So what can you do when a disparaging comment shows up? Review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor have made it easier than ever for consumers to share their negative experiences. When a review is posted, you can't simply demand that it be removed. You can, however, be proactive and ask regular customers to join the discussion to bury bad news under a flood of good news. A bad review also presents an opportunity to improve your business. "Most business owners turn defensive," Agranoff says. "But most review sites have a place where businesses can address negative comments and explain." He points to the example of a restaurant that infuriated a customer by shrinking the size of its salads but keeping the same price. "She blasted the place online, saying she'd never come back," Agranoff says. "The owner got in touch with her, and they went back and forth a dozen times. He explained that the price of produce went up, and eventually he apologized and changed the menu so the salad size would go back to what it had been, for a dollar more. She was so impressed that she took it upon herself to post positive reviews about the restaurant on other sites." Online naysayers might be bitter former employees or demanding customers with unreasonable expectations, but many are people who have had disappointing experiences. If you make a good-faith effort to address their complaints, they might post a positive follow-up review or even remove their original attack. No matter what your online strategy, be realistic: You can't control every single thing that's being said about you. Repairing an online reputation takes months, not days. The Internet has been a huge boom to countless small businesses. Unfortunately, monitoring your virtual image is the price you pay for it. -- Reported by Elizabeth Blackwell in Chicago.