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A recent discussion in our online group has raised a lot of ire against a particular lead generating company. While the ire is well-placed, it’s also clear that business owners need to do all they can to protect their online presence.

I’m not just talking about having a website, although having a website is important. I’m talking about establishing or claiming your business in local search sites and social media. In almost all cases, it’s free, it only takes a few minutes, and while it might or might not bring in leads, it will protect your name, preventing it from being used by someone else.

Some of the places to be listed include Yelp, Manta, Merchant Circle, AboutUs, Google+, Bing.com/local, YellowPages and CitySearch. It takes less than five minutes for each site, and there shouldn’t be a charge.

Even if you don’t have a website, take a few minutes and claim your business. You’ll find out that with many of the local search sites, you’re probably already listed. We found this under the FAQ’s for Yelp:

Question: How did my business information end up on Yelp?

Answer: We license basic business information from third party data providers who gather this type of information from public records and other sources. We also get business information from our users, who are helpful enough to correct the info we have, or let us know about a new spot that just opened down the street. Please feel free to let us know if our information is out of date!

Question: I’m a business owner and don’t want my business to be listed on Yelp — can I have it removed from Yelp?

Answer: Consumers have the right to talk about what they like (and don’t like) about a meal they ate, a plumber they hired, or a car wash they visited. We don’t remove business listings, so your best bet is to engage with your fans and critics alike, and hear what they have to say.

Folks, if you own a business, you are fair game for discussion. And you want to be part of the discussion.

There are a few disadvantages to doing this. You’ll have more passwords to keep track of. (The best free software we’ve found to manage passwords is available at keepass.info.) We’ve fielded phone calls from sales reps who want to confirm our information, then ask us to buy more. And we’re getting more emails to delete.

Frankly, those disadvantages are a small price to pay. Remember the good old days, when all you had to do was buy an ad in the yellow pages? Remember spending $300-600 each month for those ads? It really is better now.

There is more to developing and maintaining an online presence than just this step. You need a website and a Facebook page, and maybe even a Twitter account (I’m still not sure about that). We can talk about those later.

This week, make a commitment to register or claim your business at the places listed above. All of them. If there are local search sites I missed, please list them below. You need to be present in all these places and if you get started now, by this time next week you’ll be that much further ahead.

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