With the rise of review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, consumers are taking a much more active role in sharing their experiences – both good and bad – about the companies they do business with. And – thanks to smartphones – people don’t even have to wait to get home before writing a review. Given the viral nature of the Internet, a bad review will hit harder and spread faster than ever before.

For that reason, online reputation management matters now, more than ever.

Trends Fueling the Fire

Several trends are giving online reviews unprecedented impact:

“Googling” is second nature. These days, prospective customers automatically turn to Google, Yahoo* and other search engines for information about you and your products. Unfortunately, along with your carefully controlled marketing message come opinions from anyone who wants to share their two cents.

Comments carry weight. Comments and reviews carry weight with consumers, who are more likely to trust the unfiltered comments of their peers than advertising messages from businesses.

Search engines are finding it. Worse, search engines are now putting greater value on blogs and user-generated content, so it pops up high in searches. Recommendations and reviews by your customers may actually rank higher (and appear more quickly) than your official website.

How to Handle Negative Reviews

It’s easy to assume that only large companies are the subject of blogs and reviews. But the truth is that people are talking about small businesses online. To avoid finding your business “flamed” on review sites, consider these steps:

Head it off. Try to identify unhappy customers before they finish their transaction. If you can fix the problem early, they may never post their complaint online.

Respond sincerely. If negative comments do make it to the Web, respond quickly. Apologize for the incident. Explain how it happened, why it’s not the normal way you treat customers, and how you’re working to ensure it never happens again.

Make up for it. Ask the customer for an opportunity to serve them again and provide a better experience. All of this will leave a positive impression with anyone reading the initial negative review.

Go on the Offensive

One easy way to enhance your online presence is to “claim your place” on Google.com/places and on Yelp.com. Just create an account, enter basic information about your place(s) of business, and add pictures, videos, special offers and other content if you want. You can also respond to reviews from your “places” account.

Andy Beal, a leading reputation management expert, wrote the definitive book on this topic: Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online.  He suggests making reputation management an ongoing part of your daily routine. Tools you can use to monitor company-related names, product names, executive’s names and the like include:

Alerts. Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s being said about your business by setting up alerts across the Internet, including social media sites, forums, blogs and discussion boards/groups. Free services include Google Alerts (google.com/alerts) and Social Mention (socialmention.com). These services will alert you whenever mentions your company name so you can take action if needed.

Professional reputation management firms. For a fee, these companies will perform the monitoring for you. By using specific keywords, they can often drive positive information about your company to the top of the rankings and relegate negative content to lower pages.

Whatever services or tools you decide to use, be sure that someone at your company is assigned to routinely monitor what’s being said about your company. Then respond to compliments, questions and complaints in a timely manner in order to maintain a good online reputation and a healthy bottom line.