mike-moran.jpgTime was, business owners just wondered nervously what customers were saying to their friends about the company once they left the premises. In the Twitter era, of course, that anxiety has been resolved--their musings are online for all to see.

The question is, are you listening to what customers are saying on the internet? And if so, what's your response?

If you're still doing an ostrich about monitoring your online reputation, allow me to pluck your head from the sand. Social-media maven Mike Moran recently commented that in his experience, large corporations are all over online reputation monitoring and responding to grumpy customers, while small businesses aren't paying attention.

Which strikes me as kind of funny, because of all the newfangled social-media stuff out there, monitoring your reputation strikes me as about the easiest, cheapest thing you can do to make sure the Internet buzz on your business is positive. I mean, how hard is it to set up a Google Alert on your company name?

Once you do that, as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, there are fairly simple steps you can take to improve your online rep. Reach out to disgruntled customers or reviewers and address their issue, blog about how you're fixing it, offer them a coupon, or whatever it takes to resolve the problem.

Beyond that, you can do things to aggressively improve your online reputation. For instance, you can build profiles on heavily trafficked social media sites to hog up more of the top search results on your name, crowding out negative squawkers.

Actively ask bloggers in your sector to look at your company or review your products. Because what people say about your brand online really matters--a survey by Opinion Research Corp. found 84 percent of Americans say Internet reviews do affect their buying decisions. Ad Age recently reported how box office receipts for recent movies such as Bruno and Julie & Julia were dramatically affected by online chatter about them, both for good and ill.

These are all things that might take a few minutes a day, as opposed to spending hours Tweeting or enhancing your social-media profiles.

>Not everyone's convinced bad Internet chatter needs to be snuffed out, though. CNNMoney  reported on companies that host reviews on their site, good and bad. The companies reported they see sales improve when they host reviews, despite the occasional negative remark. Somehow, the openness of a company that's willing to let people snark about their products on their very own site seems to endear them to customers.

Whatever you do, don't pose as reviewers to brag on your company, or pay reviewers to say good things. The FCC just got involved in regulating this area, plus the backlash once it's found out can be ugly.

What's your approach to reputation management online--proactive, worried, ignoring it all? Or maybe keeping your enemies close through setting up reviews on your own site? Weigh in and describe your approach, and how it's working.