Big business can afford expensive TV commercials. For everyone else, there’s Yelp, Angie’s List, Trip Adviser, and a plethora of other services (both startups and established businesses) providing reviews about businesses that can be viewed online.

In fact, even offline organizations like the Better Business Bureau allow customers to post public business reviews, complaints, and comments online. When you toss social media platforms into the mix, the Internet is practically a sea filled with online services that can make or break a company’s public perception.

So how much do these reviews matter, and should you bother reviewing your online business reviews? Let’s take a closer look at how these services fit into your big picture and why you should monitor online small business reviews and respond as appropriate.

Everyone’s Soapbox

While the Internet is great for commerce, connecting with other people, playing games, streaming video, and so much more, what we truly love to use it for is to voice our opinions from behind the safety net of physical distance.

We love voicing our opinions so much that social media services like Facebook and Twitter are now publicly traded companies changing both the tech and investment landscape. Hundreds of small businesses and entrepreneurs became successful with offshoot services that utilize Facebook and Twitter (Zynga, Favstar, Hootsuite, etc.).

People are just used to being able to say whatever they want, and as businesses, it’s our job to accept and listen to what people have to say. This isn’t to say it’s necessary to spend all night beating yourself up with negative criticism, but, if customers have that much negative feedback, it’s a good sign something needs to change within your organization.

Everyone Else is Doing It

As recently as a decade ago, a lot of now-defunct companies in publishing, music, and other business sectors scoffed at the value of Internet marketing. Online advertising has a stigma as being those annoying popups, flashy banner ads, overly long/loud videos, and spam emails that we end up filtering through spam filters, firewalls, and other security measures.

But the tides are changing. Now, Whataburger is helping Drake serve beef on Twitter during a rap feud – can you imagine Burger King weighing in on the 2Pac and Biggie drama of the 20th century? Hip-hop analysts are saying Drake’s posting of the Meek Mill Internet memes, ending with a Whataburger brand tweet, may end the latter MC’s career.

All three of these popular brands are now trolling the Internet along with everyone else. Millions of dollars are at stake as fans are easily persuaded to change brand loyalties at the drop of a hat.

To add to the situation, many businesses are even hiring freelancers and third-party vendors to write false online reviews (which, as you can probably imagine, are largely positive for the hiring brand, while disparaging to competitors). At this point, small businesses can’t afford not to pay attention to online reviews of both your company and competitors.

Handling Online Business

I’ve seen businesses handle online reviews in a variety of ways. Some companies choose to bury negative reviews under a barrage of positive reviews using SEO and similar tactics. Others actually engage with the dissatisfied customer, which, being the Internet, can go a lot of directions.

When responding to negative online reviews, follow customer service protocol for the sake of the brand. Be sure to apologize, take accountability, and begin offering to remedy the situation. Welcome the customer to come back so you can provide them with a partial refund or free product.

This gives you an opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with a much more reasonable person. It also turns a negative experience into a positive one – in front of the general public. Don’t even mention changing the review. It’s possible the customer will choose to, but you don’t want to risk coming off as insincere.

Don’t under any circumstances lose your temper, allow yourself to be drawn into an argument, or make any negative comments about the customer. You’re on public display here, showing humility and becoming a likable public personality.

Now, when potential customers look up your brand or business online, they’ll see your brand promise in action, not just in words on your own website, where of course you’re best-in-class at everything.

So, while it may be trendy to mock the Internet as some unreliable and laughable service, it’s important to understand how important it is to monitor online reviews, whether on business review sites or social media. People love to share experiences online, and when they mention your name, it’s going to be in a positive tone.

Brian Penny is a contributor to the Connectivity blog.