Imagine this:

Your small, store-front based business has a sudden drop off in weekend customers. You have no idea what is going on. This is usually your busiest period of each week, and seemingly out of nowhere, the steady stream of clients coming in has trickled down to barely anything. You’re confused and aren’t sure what made the sudden change. As weeks go by, you’re falling further and further in the red.

And then one day, a customer calls in and asks why you’re not open on the weekends. But you are open. They explain that your Google Places profile says otherwise. You jump online and do a quick search, and sure enough, someone has changed your operating hours to show that you are closed on what are usually your busiest days.

The above example is taken from a recent Wired article, which covered how a Washington DC-based restaurant called the Serbian Crown had its online profile hijacked and tempered with. Before they could figure out what had happened, it was too late – they had to shut their doors.

But how could this have happened?

The growing reliance on internet based searches for business information, especially on mobile platforms, means that customers are more likely to ping your business online before making a trip to your location. Their search results will usually land them on a wide range of websites, all depending on their search patterns. Websites like Google Places, Bing Places, Yellowpages, Yelp and a multitude of other online directories are bound to show up as top search results. And since it’s still fairly easy to claim profiles, it doesn’t take a lot of work for someone to take your online business listings hostage and change them to whatever they like. Although Bing and Google has introduced verification processes for their business listings, a lot of unclaimed profiles are being populated based on outdated directories. And there are many such directory websites which can easily be hijacked.

What does your online business reputation mean?

Your online business reputation is made up of not only the information on online profiles, but also reviews and reports. The only real way to make sure it’s in good standing is to remain vigilant and be pro-active. You should first focus on claiming as many existing business directory profiles as you can. Google Places and Bing Places require a verification process that may take up to two weeks, and a variety of other directories will require you to go through a few hoops. Finally, remaining vigilant on how your business is reviewed and reported on online will give you the ability to quickly assess and respond to negative criticism – especially false reviews and reports, which are a proven tactic used to smear online business reputation.

The worst thing you can do is to do absolutely nothing. It’s important to understand that your business is just as much an online venture as it is offline – even if you don’t have a website or sell anything online. You need to be actively monitoring your online business reputation, it simply cannot be ignored.

Photo Credit: Flickr user =Nahemoth= – Photocopy Shop CC BY 2.0