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Businesses Must Get Proactive About Managing Their Online Reputation

What’s the value of reputation to the success of your local business? In short: it’s priceless.

Reputation is, essentially, what others say about you. And for years, reputation was mostly shaped and influenced by word of mouth and through advertising in yellow pages, broadcast and print media, and direct mail.

That traditional model, however, has changed. Over the past few years, growth in local online and mobile search, combined with the introduction of a variety of new local business listing sites and apps, are transforming the ways consumers find and select local businesses. Today, consumers have more access to information about your business—the good, the bad, and the ugly—than ever before. Businesses, therefore, need to make extra efforts to maintain proactive online strategies for managing reputation.

Here are several tips local businesses should consider when navigating this new environment to offer the best impression and stay ahead of the competition:

Ensure your business is properly represented on local business listing websites. One of the simplest ways to guarantee that consumers can quickly find your business online is to create accurate profiles on top local business listing sites, such as Yelp, Citysearch, and YellowPages.com, and new mobile-focused services like Foursquare and now Facebook Places. These offerings allow businesses to easily add or update their name, address, phone number and other contact information, assign themselves to specific business categories, list store hours, websites and different product and service offerings, post photos, and other features. Since these types of sites have high online search visibility and are among the most frequently downloaded local search apps, it’s vital that businesses maintain updated profiles on as many as possible. The last thing businesses want is for a potential customers to not have the accurate information they need to follow through with purchases. The extra work will pay off.

Launch a website that demonstrates that you run a high-quality business. These days, it’s more important than ever for a local business to have a great website that establishes the company as a reliable, trusted operation and that’s packed with information consumers need to make a purchase. Beyond including the basics like a business address and phone number, a website needs to be visually-appealing, well-written, interactive and constantly updated to give consumers positive, lasting impressions about the company. The site needs to clearly convey the quality and expertise of those running the business, the specifics of what they offer, and why they are better than their competitors. There are a variety of online tools available for businesses to quickly and cheaply create their first websites, and to help them add on additional offerings like search-engine optimization to better promote their sites in local search. There’s really no excuse for a local business not to have a website, and no shortage of potential customers who will visit a business’ site when looking to make a purchase. Remember—this is your public face.

Leverage social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In addition to a website, businesses should create a social media presence that will allow the company to engage in online conversation related to its brand and industry as a whole. Facebook and Twitter—both free to setup and use—allow businesses to convey their own voice, express thought-leadership in their area of expertise, talk one-on-one with customers and promote and defend themselves when necessary. For example, businesses can use Facebook to inform fans about new offerings and upcoming sales, or use Twitter to retweet an interesting article about their field or respond to a customer complaint about one of their services. Moreover, social networks allow owners to create virtual communities around their businesses, which can grow quickly and give businesses a direct, ongoing, and free line of communications to their most loyal customers. Additionally, sites like YouTube also give businesses a chance to connect with consumers visually and show off their offerings in a more personable way.

Monitor and influence the online conversation about your business. Local businesses need to have a strong process in place to monitor and influence the online conversation about their companies on local review sites and social networks, whether it’s paying a small fee to establish an account with an online reputation management service or setting up free Google Alerts. Monitoring ensures that no alarming customer complaints or charges are posted about the business, and if there are, that the business quickly identifies the customer, responds and mitigates the customer’s concerns. It pays to know what others are saying about you.

These days, consumers are using local search and social networking sites more than ever when deciding whether or not to move forward with a purchase, and a negative review—no matter how small, or even how long ago it was posted—can easily influence them. Additionally, rating systems on review sites can have a negative impact not only on a business’ reputation, but where the business shows up in search.

Businesses which handle online customer complaints well can quickly regain the respect of angry or frustrated customers, as well as the admiration of others watching the exchange. For example, if a customer tweets that their pizza was delivered cold, the pizza shop can quickly apologize, offer a refund and immediately deliver a warm pie free—doing so publicly so that other customers can recognize their responsiveness. The customer may be impressed by the gesture and tweet their thanks that the problem was solved, as well as their promise to order from the business again. Onlookers may be impressed by the customer service response as well and order from the business the next time they want pizza. Had the business not responded at all, the customer would have stayed unhappy and the complaint would have remained visible to the customer’s Twitter followings, potentially creating a bad reputation for the pizza shop among an entire group of potential customers. Think this doesn’t happen in real life? Read this.

I’ve also heard a story about a local restaurant that provides extra sodas, appetizers and other foods in their deliveries, with a note asking customers to write positive reviews on a popular local review site. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the restaurant has the highest rating in its category with dozens of positive reviews. Sometimes, it just takes a small incentive to get customers to talk about how great your business is online—and the rewards can be immeasurable.

Given the speed of online communications, businesses no longer have any anonymity. Reputation is being shaped every day online, in these new listings resources and through online communities. Business managers can either let it happen, or work to manage it.

As you can tell, managing a local business’ online reputation requires a firm, long-term commitment, but it’s also necessary in today’s increasingly digital world. To attract the customers you want to make your business grow, businesses need to take action to create online presences that are accurate, engaging and responsive to consumers’ needs.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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