No matter what you do, from the freelance writer who just self-published a book to the multinational corporate Goliath, businesses want people to buy and discuss their products online. Online reviews are what drive consumer to, or away from, available products and services. SEO marketing can help attract customers, but SEO has its limitations. There’s no force more powerful in the online marketplace than a so-so review, because many online purchasers will more readily buy a product rated at one out of five stars than a product rated at three!

Here are eight signs to look for to show your online reputation needs a polish.

1) Negative reviews

No product is ever going to be universally loved and adored by shoppers. This is just the reality of our world, and the reason there’s so much variety in available products. The problem is when these shoppers, many of whom are both frighteningly intelligent and dauntingly literate, take to Internet forums and chats to express their displeasure with a product or service. If your product is getting high ratings and a low rating is an aberration, you can probably not worry about it. If the inverse is true, you need to pay attention.

2) Bloggers

Bloggers are quickly becoming the voice of the common person on the Internet, and bloggers united en masse are an even more frightening phenomenon. Businesses large and small have tasted the wrath of bloggers, and the public backlash they can fuel in a thousand words or less. Reading comments on blogs that speak against your company or its products can be very revealing and give you an idea of what needs to be fixed. One thing that businesses such as Internet money transfer giant PayPal have learned is that bloggers are not to be trifled with.

3) Amazon.com, et al

Amazon.com has become the clearinghouse for everything from books to clothing to household appliances. Because you can find nearly anything on Amazon, you can also find ratings for nearly everything. People who shop these sites are quick to express their pleasure (or displeasure) with a product, and shoppers heed these reviews when they’re choosing products. Many of these reviews are “tagged,” so they show up in SEO searches. This can be a great boost to your business, or a serious danger. Knowing what Amazon users are saying is an excellent way of keeping abreast of your public image.

4) More bad than good?

If you perform an SEO search using the keywords “my business,” “reviews,” “comments,” and “discussions,” you may find yourself doing the Internet equivalent of listening at a knothole. If the search comes up with a high density of favorable comments and not many bad ones, you’re probably okay. As any Internet business owner can tell you, knowing what’s being said about you and what readers first see in search engines makes all the difference in how profitable your company is. If you’re seeing a lot of comments that make you flinch on search engines, you need to find out why.

5) Angry emails

People don’t generally bother with sending actual letters anymore unless they have to for legal reasons. Many businesses get emails every day that say “I’ve been a loyal customer of your company for X years” and then go on to blast your company in every conceivable way. An angry email may just be a customer blowing off steam, or it could be a warning sign of something bigger and more ominous in the offing. Either way, the company that ignores angry emails from its customers and clients does so at its peril.

6) Major media coverage

People love nothing more than to see the mighty humbled. News outlets exist to feed this hunger, or so it often seems. When a company’s reputation takes a significant hit in online communities, the news outlets make sure Joe Average knows about it. If you’re keeping an eye on your online reputation, you can often “spin” your reputation so it doesn’t become major news. In circumstances where you aren’t paying attention or the outcry spreads faster than you can stomp it out, you may have to do some serious and well-planned damage control.

7) SEO rankings

SEO rankings can tell more about your company than anything else. If the first search engine item that pops up on Google is your company website, followed by three blogs or reviews that blast it, you’ve got a major problem. Even worse is if you have to scroll down to the third or fourth listing to find your company’s website. Good, managed SEO content writing on behalf of your company can make a big difference. If you rely solely on SEO content to pull your business back from this brink, however, make sure your writers aren’t creating fluff pieces. That just further inflames the public.

8) The phones aren’t ringing.

If you’ve gotten to a point where your phone isn’t ringing or your website isn’t chiming with new orders, you could already be past the point of no return. Polishing your reputation at this point is going to require more than a few blogs or tweets. You’ll need targeted web market analysis, a complete image overhaul, and some massive public relations work to get your business back on top. This is going to mean spending (and gambling) a great deal of money, but depending on the size of your business, it could still be better than filing bankruptcy.

If you encounter one of these signs, you should proceed warily. Two or more means your business image needs attention right now. Four or more means you need to start fighting back with a managed SEO and reputation revitalization campaign ten minutes ago. You’ve worked hard to build your company, but it only takes a handful of determined, motivated people to reduce all that effort to nothing. For the sake of your employees, contractors, and sanity, you should be monitoring your online reputation and taking proactive measures to safeguard it frequently.