Small businesses in this day and age are aware of how much social media can benefit their businesses. Sites like Facebook and Twitter give entrepreneurs the ability to advertise their companies and their products for little to no out of pocket costs. They can also connect to customers directly to help build better buyer and seller relationships.

According to Town Square Interactive, as many as 90 percent of consumers report that online reviews and social media postings about a company will influence their buying decisions. For small businesses to reap the free advertising benefits of online reviews, they need to know how to appropriately reach customers and get them to post their praises online. 

"Not all poor reviews are bad for business."

How online reviews can help small businesses
In a survey conducted by Bright Local, 92 percent of consumers reported that they read online reviews. Additionally, the survey revealed that it only takes one to three reviews for a reader to make up his mind about the business. 

This presents an interesting challenge to small business owners, who need to make sure that the first reviews a potential consumer sees about their businesses are positive ones. Bright Local discovered that star ratings were more influential than the text of a review, so bringing in five-start ratings is important for businesses – only 13 percent of survey respondents said they would consider visiting a business that has an overall score of only one or two stars.

It's crucial that when small businesses attempt to boost their online ratings they are relying only on honest reviews from real consumers. Customers are becoming more adept at spotting fraudulent reviews, and the discovery of such could greatly damage a company's reputation. Sixty-eight percent of those who took the survey said that positive reviews make them trust a business more. This number has decreased from the year before, as consumer are becoming increasingly wary of fake reviews posted by the business owners themselves.

That's why Town Square Interactive says not all poor reviews are bad for business. A few blasé reviews offer a sense of authenticity to a company, a realness that helps to build consumer trust in the positive write-ups. 

Having an active and overall positive consumer score online can help businesses draw in new customers without having to pay for advertising or do all of the legwork themselves. 

Online consumers are very visual - they are more likely to look for star reviews than read the text that goes with them. Online consumers are more likely to look for star reviews than read the text that goes with them.

How to control online reviews
Just because consumers are the ones writing the free publicity for a business doesn't mean that there is no work involved for the business owner, however. Good entrepreneurs will work to try and control the conversation around their brands and products. 

Bloomberg recommends a direct approach to getting positive reviews to show up online. When a customer has a positive interaction with the business, her point of contact should request that she leave a review online. Printed items, like the store receipts, should also post this request. Online stores should contain text that asks for reviews, as well as links to popular review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor. 

"Monitor reviews for false complaints."

The sources make an important distinction, however – business owners should not explicitly request positive reviews. It's important to ask instead for an honest review. Simply tell a customer that you would appreciate if they took the time to review how his experience was working with the business. When this request follows a pleasant interaction or positive purchasing experience, it can help guide the patron to leaving glowing feedback online. 

Entrepreneur states that the best thing to do with reviews is to take the feedback and follow up if necessary. Consumers with valid complaints will be impressed if you turn around and make the corrections that they wanted, which can turn a negative experience into a positive one. Getting defensive and attacking negative reviewers, on the other hand, can make a business look desperate and mismanaged, which can be more harmful that the negative review itself. 

It's also important to monitor reviews for false complaints. If you can prove that a negative review is a lie, the hosting site will take it down. Business owners have to be able to get out ahead of these falsities before they can do any damage to the company's reputation. However, the only way to do that is to regularly check in with popular review sites to see if anything looks off. 

Equipment and business industry piece brought to you by Marlin Equipment Finance, a nationwide provider of commercial lending solutions for small and mid-size businesses. Marlin's equipment financing and loan products are offered directly to businesses, and through third party vendor programs, which include manufacturers, distributors, independent dealers and brokers in the security, food services, healthcare, information technology, office technology and telecommunications sectors.