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In this four-part series, we'll explore how businesses can build and manage their online reputations

Part One: Managing your Web reputation

In early December, a Canadian Web hosting company found out the hard way just what happens when the Internet turns on a business.

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It was at the height of the Wikileaks release of thousands of classified U.S. embassy cables, and a number of Web service providers were responding to the incident by shutting down Wikileaks' Web sites. In turn, those decisions to shut down the sites caused thousands of angry Web users to blast the Internet Service Providers for effectively blocking free speech.

That's when a news report mistakenly confused one such Web firm with Toronto-based easyDNS, a company that had, until then, virtually no contact with Wikileaks. Once the report came out, easyDNS was flooded with complaints and subjected to an influx of negative commentary on social sites such as Twitter.

This recent incident confirms the importance of reputation management for small and medium-sized business owners in the Internet age. In the case of EasyDNS, the company found itself on the wrong side of criticism through no fault of its own.

In other cases, a minor or major fumble by a company can resonate for days, weeks or months online.

A particularly illustrative example of the magnifying effect of the Web can be found in the Cooks Source saga. In November, the small New England magazine was caught using content from a writer without payment or attribution. It wasn't the initial mistake that hurt the magazine most, but the editor's subsequent letter to the author, which essentially dismissed the issue. The letter became a viral sensation on-line, and the deluge of critical commentary directed at the magazine eventually became so overwhelming, the publication was forced to shut down.

In recent years, a growing industry has popped up to help businesses clean up their Internet presence. "Reputation management" firms have grown to encompass a wide variety of services, and any small or medium-sized business owner looking to maintain a significant presence online should familiarize themselves with what those firms do, and what an individual business can do for itself.

Much of the reputation management industry focuses on social networking sites such as Facebook, and recommendation and review sites for hotels, restaurants and other services. Increasingly, consumers visit such sites and base their purchasing decisions on what they see. As such, businesses have become more concerned about negative reviews and comments. Some companies and reputation management firms have taken a hard line on the issue, threatening Web sites or individual users with legal action over critical comments. Others have taken to posting their own countering comments, either overtly or disguised as an average user.

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The tactic also extends to search engines. Some companies have taken to asking certain search sites to change their results for terms related to the company - for example, pushing negative or defamatory sites further down, or de-listing them altogether.

But perhaps the most effective, if time-consuming, tactic in the reputation management field is the manual approach. In the case of EasyDNS, the company's boss spent hours on Twitter, individually correcting every post that wrongly claimed the company had shut down Wikileaks. Eventually, the crisis passed and the Web hosting company managed to escape the wrath of the Web.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Related articles can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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