http://www.dreamstime.com/-image28022293First there was MySpace, widely adopted by teens and young adults who were ready to evolve from the IM chatrooms. Then there was Facebook, which quickly overtook MySpace as the most popular social network and drew the attention of older demographics. Then businesses started taking notice of the opportunity to connect with a target audience via social media. Around that time, Twitter entered the scene, then Pinterest and of course, location-based services and social review platforms such as Yelp and Foursquare. Businesses are still learning that they have to have a solid plan in terms of social media to align with their business goals, engage their audience and produce ROI—and now the idea of using social media as a customer service tool is gaining speed.

From all this comes an increased awareness of the need to continuously monitor your company’s online reputation. So what we’re saying is…yeah, we know you’re just getting used to the idea of monitoring your social media presence, but the time has come to start managing your online reputation as a whole. That’s right: Yet another metric and channel to measure. In fact, 83 percent of consumers say that online reviews influence their buying decisions. But have no fear. We’ve outlined a simple, basic reputation management blueprint you can follow to take control over your online rep.

1. What do you need to monitor?

Take an inventory of your current online presence. What social networks are you using? Are there reviews of your company on Yelp, Angie’s List, Citysearch or Yahoo! Local? Start a spreadsheet including links to all your brand’s profiles or mentions across the social sphere—then it’s easy to go back and manually check each site if you find out that there’s negative feedback out there about you. Of course, it’s a good idea to manually check these sites periodically, and many of them you’ll be monitoring as part of your social media marketing plan anyway.

2. Set up Google Alerts for your brand name.

One of the most challenging aspects of managing your online reputation is the vast-ness of the Internet. How can you possibly keep track of all those review sites, social media networks, blogs and everything else that’s online? That’s why free tools like Google Alerts are so useful for online reputation management.

Set up an alert with your brand name and maybe a few keyword modifiers, such as “review” or “customer service,” and get daily notifications of new content indexed across the web related to your company. You may also want to set up alerts for your own name and the names of top executives or key players—you never know what could be out there that could damage your image if tied to your company.

3. Claim your brand name.

Even if you’re not including a particular network in your social media strategy, you should sign up for an account to claim your brand name. If you don’t, someone else could claim it and use it to intentionally make you look bad, because consumers will associate your brand name with your company and may not figure out right away that the people behind the profile aren’t your team. Either that, or another company could infringe upon your brand name and you’ll have to spend valuable time—and possibly take legal action—to reclaim what’s rightfully yours.

4. Use free tools to track your online reputation.

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars managing your online reputation. While there may come a point at which it makes sense to do so, if your brand presence is currently manageable you can easily get by using free or cheap tools to keep tabs on conversations about your business. Tools like WatchThatPage let you monitor a page for changes.

Basically, if you find a review of your company, use WatchThatPage to be notified of follow-up comments—whether they’re positive or negative, you can respond appropriately and engage your potential customers even on third-party websites. We’ve rounded up a slew of useful free and cheap tools for online reputation management on the cheap.

5. Constantly be on the lookout for opportunities.

Consumers have come to expect a response from a company if they post feedback or questions on the company’s Facebook or Twitter pages or profiles, thanks to the rise of social media for customer service—and companies like Comcast, which have taken the social media approach to customer service to the next level and set an example for businesses everywhere with @comcastcares. What consumers haven’t yet come to expect (read: This spells opportunity for you.) is to receive a prompt response to feedback posted on third-party websites.

If you can be among the first in your industry to take control of your brand’s online reputation and make a practice of addressing reviews and feedback—both positive and negative, you can make a big impact on your target audience. We’re talking about responding to comments on blog posts, joining discussions about your company in discussion forums and other places where consumers don’t necessarily expect you to notice. If you’re able to find an email address for the commenter, making personal contact can turn a critic into one of your biggest fans.

6. Reduce the impact of negative reviews.

When you do find a negative review, you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. You can easily get rid of negative comments on your Facebook brand page by deleting them. Unfortunately, you don’t always have control over the profile these comments are posted on. If this is the case, you can respond to the commenter and try to resolve the issue—and encourage them to take the conversation offline. You can also reach out to the webmaster to ask that the comment be removed, but you’re not always going to get a cooperative response. Your best bet is to approach negativity head-on and offer resolutions.

7. Be proactive: Produce a lot of quality content and offer stellar customer service.

There’s one way you can exert greater control over what shows up in the SERPs about your brand, and that’s by producing a lot of top-quality content. Make use of all those social profiles to share your content across the web–when you do, you’ll fill up the search results with great content, leaving less room for negative remarks to appear in prominent places.

And as long as we’re talking about taking proactive measures, let’s address the most obvious tactic for maintaining a positive online reputation: Provide exceptional customer service. You won’t always please everyone, but you can reduce the likelihood that a customer will post negative feedback if you address problems promptly and courteously.

That’s it. That’s all it takes to start taking control over your online reputation–and notice it doesn’t involve spending hours upon hours scouring the web for mentions of your brand each day, or even each week. It’s as easy as setting up a few alerts, making use of a few free tools and staying engaged.