Since the advent of social media, consumers and businesses around the world have been more connected than ever. This has corresponded with a complete shift in the way consumers make purchasing decisions online. Today, consumers are a lot more diligent when spending money online.

When considering doing business with a company, consumers will often check out your website, your social media channels and more importantly, what other people are saying about your business.

According to  AdWeek, a whooping 81% of consumers conduct online research before they buy. They are searching for information, recommendations, research and online reviews to ascertain the credibility of companies they want to do business with. The popularity and proliferation of social media and review sites means that reviews can be easily shared and found online.

9 out of 10 consumers say an online review is equally as important as a personal recommendation. The prevailing trend over the last few years clearly shows how much more regularly people are reading reviews. In fact, 85% of consumers say they need to read up to 10 online reviews about a local business before they are satisfied. This clearly highlights the need for local businesses to attract more reviews and proactively manage their online reputation.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that consumers want to feel comfortable doing business with you and trust that they won’t have a bad experience when they buy from you. With unfettered access to information on just about anyone or business, consumers are now doing their due diligence before they do business with any local business online.

Within seconds, consumers can find independent and accurate opinions of any business’s history through instantaneous Google searches. They are also gathering information by participating in conversations on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as review sites such as Yelp, TrustPilot and TrustAdvisor. So, it is not enough to simply represent your business online.

You need to be proactive about collecting as many real and authentic reviews as you can, so that your customers and prospects have something to read other than simply information. Show your customers you are trusted and provide great service, and publish all of your reviews on your website.

For most consumers, reviews inspire trust and credibility. This emphasizes just how important they for local businesses, which is why reputation management is so important. Positive reviews will need some work to get, but they will eventually pay off in the form of more customers for your business.

Ultimately, your prospective customers are involving others in their purchasing decision: it doesn’t matter whether it is a friend, a spouse, a work colleague, or people in their social network. They are reading reviews from experts and everyday consumers, they are searching for comparison-shopping sites, and they are publishing questions on forums, blogs, social networking profiles, Twitter, and more.

As a business, it is important proactively manage and monitor web conversations and what users find about your brand, products, and services on the internet. This is because the information gleaned from Google searches is key to the entire decision-making process. Online reputation management (ORM) is a complex process, but it is also critical to the success of small businesses. A large part of a business establishing a strong online presence is managing your online reputation because that reputation is your most valuable asset.