When starting your company, you know that what Google says about you is more important that what you say about yourself (see related article, "Google Is Your Home Page"). Especially as a start-up, your reputation is highly fragile and having no name is a big disadvantage especially when taking on established players.

Even once you do establish yourself in the marketplace, the biggest challenge that your digital freedom brings is your inability to control the volatile nature of online conversations--that is, what other people are saying about you online 24x7. All social media platforms, forums and community sites are driven by user-generated content that is impossible to control, yet impacts your brand and ultimately the success of your business day in and day out.

To build a brand amid this chatter, you must fortify your reputation plan right from the start. As many companies outsource this function, I decided to get (and share) some expert advice. Michelle Johnson is an Online Reputation professional at w3Police.com, a reputation management firm which focuses on personal as well as corporate branding. As Michelle often writes about strategies that involve using social media to build corporate reputations, I asked her what were the most important things businesses (and individuals) would need to do in order to effectively manage their reputation. Here is what she recommends:

1. Know what kind of brand you are trying to build.

Your branding goals will define if you are pursuing the right path. How a business wants to be seen by its target audience is a decision that ought to be taken at the beginning of the business as it shapes the brand identity of an enterprise. So ask yourself first, 'how you want to project your business?' Do you want to play on cost, credibility, quality of a product/service or a specific niche? There would be several such questions that need thoughtful answers before you know that it's on the right track.

2. Check your existing reputation before kicking-off.

Checking the online reputation of your brand name is crucial. Scrutinize search engines results for the term and title taken to name a new venture. In many cases businesses register their name without running a simple online check and end up retracting the name. Many times, you see that the brand title or terms related to the brand name you'd like to use already have negative results. To save your startup from similar state, list options and check all results before finalizing your brand name.

3. Make sure your personal reputation is safe & sound.

It's simply not practical to avoid Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn accounts these days. That's like saying, "I don't really like using a mobile phone". If the social profiles of CEOs, founders, and top management show offensive posts or comments, the brand is likely to lose ground to competitors. Personal reputation of the founders and the people associated with your startup can influence its brand's image in no time. We live in the era where customers don't hesitate for a second to go online to leave negative reviews. Make sure you see exactly what potential customers and future partners see when they look up your brand online. Are you credible? Is your reputation solid? And is your personal reputation and that of your team what you want seen on the web?

4. Start building your online presence before launching your business.

Building your online presence is a must for startups. Not having any presence can be dangerous because the market you are entering into is likely to already have established and recognized names. Being visible on various platforms will help you connect with more users and give you an initial foothold. Start promoting your name across all social media networks and business channels a few months before you launch your business. This will enable you to have the edge over other newly built startups by the time you launch yours.

5. Don't give your competitor a chance to tear down your brand.

Not occupying your digital space in time can give your competitors a chance to destroy your brand. There are various instances of rival brands playing foul games when a new business enters their market. They can create fake pages in the name of your business and launch a negative promotion. To avoid that, make sure your pages, business listings, and blogs are live and that all of your assets are easy to distinguish from unofficial sources created by your competitors.

6. Engage and stay active with your social media audience.

There is no better way to establish a new brand than via social media today. When handled correctly, it can generate substantial referrals to your business as well. But, to take advantage of these benefits, you need to stay active. Social engagement asks more of you than standard content management (see related article, "Don't be a HubSpot Hater"). Stick to real time engagement as that's the key to win over your desired audience via social media.

7. Ask Clients to share customer experience and get user feedback.

Feedback is worth its weight in gold. Gathering feedback should be incorporated into finishing a project or successfully delivering the service you've sold. Reviews of happy customers will prove to be a big asset in building your brand. For a newly established business, positive reviews work like a magic. The more you have, the more your potential customers will trust what people are saying about you.

8. Take the high road and don't be offensive while responding to bad reviews.

Customers are quite forgiving by nature provided you respond in a reasonable amount of time and respond with empathy and a solution's focused attitude. Apologizing is the only feasible option when you cannot make things right. For instance, a hotel can provide a voucher for a discounted stay in its preeminent suite if a traveler complains of poor room-service or a bad experience. If a product is broken, then replace it. It's just common sense. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect that you will make amends for mistakes. Oh, and when you turn a disappointed customers into a raving fan, don't forget to ask a positive review (or at least to acknowledge that a previously bad situation was rectified).

9. Constantly Monitor you brand mentions

You should know wherever people use your brand name online. Monitor brand mentions; analyze those results and interpret search results to avoid reputation damage. Add your brand name to reputation monitoring tools and get notified whenever someone mentions it online. Not just the brand name but the terms associated with your business should also be added to get a complete picture.

10. Don't ignore Offline Marketing

Offline presence impacts every business even though you may be focused online. Strengthen your public relations activities and ensure that people know you and talk about you offline as well. Real life events gather more attention of online users than many of your digital promotions. Also, leverage your online reputation using offline marketing. That is, you can reach out to people through print, direct mail and outdoor in order to prompt them to engage with you online.

As a startup you have a lot to lose when you allow others to control your reputation online. Don't wait for negative reviews to attack your reputation. Be proactive instead and make a name for yourself and your startup. Like it or not, you are who Google says you are.

Published on: Jul 30, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.