Will Aubuchon, director of e-Commerce for Hardwarestore.com and Aubuchon Hardware, a 100-year-old family-owned hardware store with 125 locations, is keenly aware of customer satisfaction. Last year, Aubuchon bought a monthly subscription to RatePoint, a suite of widgets, including customer reviews, surveys and newsletters, which can be downloaded to any commercial website. The business tool quickly helped Aubuchon to put his finger on the pulse of his customers -- allowing him to customize what he sells to the consumer and immediately address customer complaints, helping to boost his sales by 5 percent this year.'¨'¨

Although a variety of small businesses are interested in boosting their market reach, approximately 31 percent of small-business owners remain uncertain as to whether or not an online review has impacted their company, according to a RatePoint survey. Aubuchon, however, has little doubt that online reviews are like gold.'¨'¨

"Testimonials are only a click away," says Aubuchon. "Imagine being a new customer. I would see if Aubuchon was online. And if I was able to read four, five, or 10 reviews; that speaks volumes to the company."  '¨'¨

RatePoint was founded in 2006 by Neal Creighton and four of his colleagues with the philosophy that "Reputation is Everything" --the company's slogan. The web widgets are now being used by nearly 100,000 small businesses globally, and are translated in Spanish, French, English and German. '¨'¨

Last month, Nielson, a company that monitors global internet activity, showed that 70 percent of consumers said they trusted customer opinions posted online, second only to word-of-mouth recommendations. "The world has changed a lot in the last several years," says Creighton, "and RatePoint gives businesses the opportunity to have a two-way conversation for the whole world to see. It allows the business to be proactive."'¨

Websites like Constant Contact, which creates email newsletters, contact lists and surveys, and Complaint.com, which gives users a forum to complain about anything, also can help or hurt small businesses through customer interaction.  '¨'¨

"Let's face it, we are not going to be bigger than Wal-Mart, not cheaper than the dollar store, the only thing we have is our reputation" says Jim Carroll, vice president of small business at Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and the executive director of The Small Business Development Center in Virginia, quoting a colleague. Carroll believes that sites such as RatePoint can help small businesses compete. He and his team recommend RatePoint to help nascent and quickly growing businesses market their products, especially given the current economy.