ReputationChanger.com reviews the online reputation needs of companies both large and small — and in doing so, the firm has arrived at a grim reality: That for small business owners, the reputational threats that exist on the Internet are numerous indeed. The Web, after all, has long been likened to the Wild West, and not without reason; despite the best efforts to impose order on the online community, lawlessness prevails, with individuals free to say and do whatever they wish with impunity. That means they can mouth off about whatever company or brand they care to, and there is no obligation for their comments to be based in fact; that kind of liberty is fun for the consumer, perhaps, but it’s a detriment to businesses.

In fact, as more and more consumers come to base their purchasing decisions on information gleaned from the Internet, it is no exaggeration to say that what the Web reveals about a small business can either be its saving grace or its undoing. That’s why it is important for small business owners to remain aware of the direst reputational threats that exist on the online world — and to work to protect themselves against them.

The Scourge of Online Review Sites

The most obvious threats to a small business’ online reputation come in the form of content posted to TripAdvisor.com, to Urban Spoon, to Yelp, or to Foursquare — of course, we’re talking about online reviews. More and more consumers base their purchasing decisions on these reviews, which means that positive reviews can prove a boon to any company — but negative ones can be utterly catastrophic.

What does your small business need to know about online reviews? That they can come from anywhere — including business rivals or disgruntled employees — so no company is ever impervious to them. Also, sites like Yelp.com do not remove reviews, even when they are blatantly fallacious or defamatory, so there is no use seeking to have them removed or deleted. The best option for business owners is to instead work at amassing positive reviews, proactively soliciting them from faithful customers; these positive reviews can help to mitigate the damage done by the negatives.

The Threat of Doppelganger Domains

Here is another source of potential embarrassment. Say you own a company called Johnsonville Hardware, but somebody else owns the online domain johnsonvillehardware.com. If the domain belongs to another company with the same name, it will dilute your online branding efforts, but if it belongs to one of your rivals — or to a disgruntled employee — it could prove even worse. It could lead to supreme humiliation and online defamation.

Of course, this is an easy one to defend against this: Make sure that you own all of the domains associated with your company name (.org and .net, too), as well as the domains associated with your chief executives and your branded products.

Internal Scandals Can Sink a Reputation

Small businesses also do well to remember that scandals can be caused internally — that not all of your reputational threats exist beyond your company. Think about your company Facebook page or Twitter account; a single ill-advised and potentially offensive comment, posted online, could cause a firestorm of controversy surrounding your business.

That may sound like something that could never happen to your business — but what if you leave the social media responsibilities to an intern or a new hire, whose grasp on your company’s vision is tentative? The best way to defend against this threat is to make sure you have a written social media policy in place, and that your social media and blogging responsibilities are given to trusted team members.

What About Negative News Headlines?

Finally, remember that as a small business, you exist — to some extent, anyway — in the public eye, and as such, there may come a time when your company makes the headlines. If those headlines are less than positive — and if they start spreading like wildfire through the pages of Google — it could obviously be a disaster. That’s why it is so critical to make sure that you’re regularly putting out positive newswires, building your brand’s authority and insulating yourself against smears.