You can't believe everything on the Internet.
But if you're a business, you can't ignore it either.
Good or bad, right or wrong, online chatter influences customers in ways that traditional word-of-mouth doesn't.
"Offline reputation is often generated by word of mouth and usually dies after the story is told," said Rory Wilfong of ProspectMX, an Internet marketing company.
"But once content is published online, it's there forever. And in many cases, it's difficult to get rid of," said Wilfong, president of business development and client success.
Yet by monitoring what is being said, getting favorable news out and dealing appropriately with negativity, businesses can take control of their online reputation, experts said.
Done correctly, a strong, positive online presence can enhance the credibility and extend the reach of small businesses, they emphasized.
"Your Twitter feed looks exactly the same as Coca Cola's," said Kae Kohl of Kiwi Marketing Group, a local firm that advises companies on presenting themselves well online.
Monitoring your reputation can be as easy as activating a Google Alert to send you e-mails about new online mentions of your company.
From there, setting up Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn accounts and company blogs can help you accentuate the positive about your firm.
"Get the good stuff going and get used to doing it, so that if something bad does come up, you are not scrambling to take a position. You've already got one," said Bede Fahey of Kiwi.
Another advantage of using social media sites, Fahey noted, is that their popularity means they usually rank high in an online search.
So if there is less-flattering information about your firm on the Internet, that information can be pushed off the first page of search results by the social media sites.
And when most people do a search, they rarely go beyond that first page.
Among the small business owners here who've taken steps to bolster their online reputations are Kim Rosenberg and Jessica Pavelko.
Rosenberg, of Rosenberg Psychological Practice, recently began doing a blog as part of her website and set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
A self-described technophobe, Rosenberg said the blog has been a good outlet for writing about topics related to her Lancaster counseling practice, while the social media sites have opened up a whole new world.
"It is not just that people have access to me, but I have access to what is going on out there," she said.
Pavelko recently added a blog to the website for her business, Pavelko Senior Consulting Services, which advises people on options for senior care.
Pavelko said the blog is a way to present the rationale for her business while conveying helpful information.
"People need to hear what I do, rather than see something in an ad," said Pavelko, who has seen traffic on her website climb 44 percent since starting the blog and devoting time to social media.
Pavelko said she sometimes struggles to keep the content fresh, but devotes an hour on Thursday afternoons to updating it.
While getting positive information out can push negative comments off the first page of online search results - and effectively out of sight - those comments still need to be addressed, experts said.
Fahey said businesses have to "resist the temptation to tell it how it is" since that approach could aggravate someone who is already ranting.
Acknowledging a legitimate problem, apologizing and making it right often can turn a vocal critic into an active fan, he said.
Another temptation is to "game" online reviews about your firm's products, said Oliver Feakins, president of WebTalent SEO, a firm whose services include search-engine optimizing.
"A lot of people, the first thing they'll do is, they'll open an account and write fake reviews. And that is the worst thing you can do," said Feakins, whose company helps monitor the online reputation of some national companies.
Feakins said phony reviews can often be sniffed out, potentially creating an even bigger online image problem.
Instead, letting customers know about online review sites and making it easy for them to write their own can naturally generate positive responses.
Baron Insurance Group of Manheim now sends links to review sites when it communicates with some customers.
Along with a revamped website that includes a blog on insurance topics as well as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, customer reviews have built positive buzz, said Chris Vogt, Baron's director of sales and marketing.
"Typically insurance isn't pushing the edge of technology and social media, so we wanted to try to be the first mover there," said Vogt, who posts on Facebook and Twitter every day and does weekly blog posts.
Such a commitment to developing and maintaining an online presence is key, the experts agreed, to putting - and keeping - a company's best foot forward.
"The point is, you would never know how much business you're losing from poor reputation management," Feakins said.
WOW THEM ON THE WEB
• Claim what is yours: Set up accounts with major social media sites. (At the very least, use Facebook, Yahoo! and Twitter.)
• Be proactive: Get compelling info into your social media sites. Positive information will help counteract negative info that might appear.
• Keep up-to-date: Set up Google Alerts or a news feed for your name and business name, as well as common misspellings.
• Know your online rep: Search for your name or business online. If there are negative items, deal with them.
• Stay in control, online and offline: What happens in Vegas, stays on Facebook. Generally, your personal profile is for personal connections; your business sites are for your business only.
Source: Kiwi Marketing Group