In the digital age, you would be foolish to try cultivating your small business without taking it online. So many leads, customers, potential clients and revenue can be found on the internet nowadays – so you need to get your name out there! Unfortunately, with new opportunity also comes new risk. You’ve got your brand new website set up, an email address to contact you, and your product is excellent – but nobody is buying, because your site can’t be found; your competition is outstripping your brand in targeted advertising; and someone has registered a domain name that’s a slight misspelling of yours! What do you do?

Claim your domains, social handles and intellectual property

First and foremost, make sure you register your domain names. Domain names are web addresses for your website, such as mysmallbusiness.co.uk. Register mysmallbusiness.co.uk with an internet registrar, but also make sure to register mysmallbusiness.com, mysmallbusiness.net and any other domain names for countries in which you operate. This way, competitors looking to use underhanded tactics cannot register any domains using your business name in an attempt to attract your customers to them. You may wish to look into the costs of owning different spellings of your brand names, also – to stop abusers from “typosquatting,” where they will set up a similar looking site at mysmallbusinesses.co.uk in an attempt to trick a customer.

Next, ensure you register your business name on social profiles, should you wish to use them. Facebook and Twitter are the obvious choices, but remember LinkedIn, as well as Google+, Pinterest and Instagram, should you wish to use them. Claiming these pages not only stops your competitors doing so, but also helps to grow your brand’s digital footprint. Even if you don’t wish to use them right away, having them taking up internet real estate for your small business is a must.

Thirdly, register your business names and marks with the Intellectual Property Office. This way, should a competitor try to represent themselves using your brand, defame your brand, or register any of your domain names or handles, bringing a dispute against them will be easier. It only costs £170 to register a trademark in one “group” of products – an investment that can save you thousands in lost sales as the result of someone else attacking your brand!

Monitor your customers’ sentiment about your brand

You can easily set up Google Alerts and monitor social media searches using programs like HootSuite to keep an eye on what people say about your small business, and take action when it’s not particularly positive. The advent of the internet, social media and review sites such as Rated People, OpenTable and Trust Pilot give consumers a much louder voice, and mean small businesses must be accountable for shoddy customer service. You can use this to your advantage, by monitoring how customers talk about your business, and responding to them directly to nip any problems in the bud before they develop into much bigger branding disasters.

Protect your digital assets from attack

Many underhanded competitors like to use legitimate services, such as pay-per-click advertising (PPC) in illegitimate ways – such as targeting consumers who search for your brand names online. Keep on top of what your brand name search results are regularly, and dispute any misuses of your brand with your competitors – through the search engine company itself, or through the courts.

Keep in mind the prospect of negative search engine optimisation (SEO). Typical SEO practice involves setting up a legitimate, relevant website so that it can be found easier by search engines. Negative SEO involves doing exactly the opposite – targeting a website with SEO practices that will ultimately reduce the site’s search visibility. This mainly involves linking the website to “bad neighbourhood” sites, such as pornography, gambling and piracy sites. You can combat this by keeping an eye on who is linking to your small business websites in Google Analytics. If you find any bad links that you cannot explain, contact the webmasters of the sites linking to yours and ask them to remove the links before your site’s search engine performance suffers.

Also, make sure your business’ computers and website servers are protected against cyber threats, such as hackers, viruses, malware and direct denial of service attacks (DDoS). Hackers sometimes like to break into websites and change the addresses enquiries or revenues go to – or remove the sites entirely. You can combat this by choosing strong passwords for your websites, and ensuring your website servers have up to date virus protection.

Know when you’re wrong

If you make a difficult, risky decision online, and it doesn’t work out in your favour, don’t dig yourself into a hole. The internet is a very public place, and any of your past misdeeds can – and will – come to light if anyone goes looking for them, no matter how much you try to cover them up.

Admitting your mistake, and making amends (such as with negative reviews above), can go a long way to rebuilding your brand if something goes wrong – and will show your small business as responsible, accountable and with a lot of integrity. Cut your losses, show that you’re human, and work on rebuilding your brand – you’ll be better for the lessons learned in the long run.

It takes time, hard work and a brilliant business mind (that’s you!) to build a brand online. We can help you do it, with our 7 Step to Building a Brand – but, once you’ve built your brand, you need to protect it. Following these steps will go some way to keeping your brand in your customers’ good books – and keeping your small business going from strength to strength.