Online reputation is important for small businesses

How can small-business owners manage their online reputation if they don’t use Internet marketing? Whether an owner is aware or not, previous customers may be discussing the company through online channels. In some cases, consumers share positive experiences, but reviews could also be about bad service. This can harm a small business’s online reputation and potentially deter new clients.

Small companies used to rely on Better Business Bureau membership to display that they were a trusted organization and delivered excellent customer service. Accredited businesses would pay BBB a fee for reviews to ensure they continued to meet the standards. However, the business environment and consumer preferences have changed drastically in recent years, and BBB accreditation may not have the same return on investment it previously did. Instead, small companies can more effectively use their budgets by relying on Internet marketing methods instead.

Why online reputation management matters

More than half of U.S. small businesses do not even have a website, and 85 percent of consumers are using the Internet to find businesses, Street Fight magazine said. A website is now an extension of the business itself and has become a powerful tool for establishing a reputation online.

Only 5 percent of consumers never searched the Internet to find a local business in the past 12 months, according to a study from Bright Local. Thirty-seven percent of consumers search for companies online at least once a month.

Compared to survey results in 2012, consumers are searching for for a wider variety of businesses online. In particular, people were searching for a higher number of specialty shops and for tradesmen, such as plumbers, who depend on an airtight reputation to generate leads.

How can small businesses improve online reputation?

With the growing importance of the Internet and the amount consumers are using it, small-business owners need to adapt or risk being left behind. They could be losing business due to negative reviews online that they were not even aware of. If a company does not manage its own online reputation, any negative consumer reviews will stand out, Street Fight said.

In addition to leveraging a modern website to attract new customers, small businesses can use credible third-party review sites to attract positive attention. Encouraging customers to leave reviews on these sites can help local companies increase their referrals. These review sites can have a more measured return on investment, which makes them more effective than BBB accreditation.

If a consumer is thinking about trying out a new product or service, he or she is more likely to listen to feedback from friends, family or the Internet than respond to a print advertisement. In the eyes of consumers, a business becomes more credible if they can find a great deal of information about it online and read positive reviews of other people who have had a good experience with the company.

Small-business owners may think being off the grid will prevent people from posting complaints, but a well-managed online reputation will boost awareness. It can help them gain new customers and establish trust in their brand.