By Rieva Lesonsky

Are you living in fear of Yelp? Some small business owners seem to view the online review and ratings site with a terror second only to that reserved for an IRS audit. That’s a big mistake, because Yelp is a huge influence on consumer buying behavior (do you know anyone who goes out to eat in an unfamiliar city without checking Yelp first?).

Unfortunately, far too many small businesses aren’t even listed on Yelp because their owners are afraid of getting a negative review. If your small business is one that relies on local customers, such as a bar, restaurant, retail store or personal service provider, I’m afraid you really can’t afford to ignore Yelp any longer. But don’t take it from me—consider some of the data MarketingProfs recently highlighted about Yelp’s power to help (yes, help!) small businesses.

Small businesses have long relied on the power of word-of-mouth to attract new customers. Think of Yelp as today’s word-of-mouth, and it’s a lot less scary. Indeed, nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of consumers say they trust online reviews as much as they trust personal recommendations from someone they know. What’s more, 90 percent of Yelp users say that positive reviews affect their purchasing decisions, and 93 percent of people who do research on review sites say they end up buying from the businesses they’re researching.

Just about every type of business can benefit from being on Yelp, but restaurants, beauty and spa services, food, nightlife, home services and professional service providers stand to gain the most—more than half of consumers regularly search these types of businesses on Yelp.

Sadly, though, small businesses aren’t taking advantage of Yelp’s power. Some 87 percent of small businesses admit they don’t actively use review sites such as Yelp, and among those businesses that do have a Yelp page, 22 percent have never even looked at their page!

So what do you need to do? First, take some time to get familiar with Yelp. Try using it to look up local businesses and see how it works. You’ll probably notice that businesses you like have good reviews, which can make you feel more comfortable using Yelp.

Next, visit Yelp to “unlock” your free account and set up a business page. Fill out your Yelp profile as completely as you can, including links to your business website, photos of your location/menu items/products, hours you’re open, directions, phone number and more. The more info you provide, the higher you’ll rank in Yelp’s internal search results.

Once you’re on Yelp, be sure to interact. While Yelp discourages actively soliciting reviews from customers, it’s OK to say “Check us out on Yelp!” or something similar. When customers know you’re on Yelp, they’ll be moved to review you if they’ve had a good experience (or a terrible one).

So what if your worst fear comes true and you get a negative review? Yelp offers lots of guidance for how to handle this situation, but the gist is to remain calm and not get defensive. If possible, try to take the discussion offline so you can resolve the issue without the world watching. (Be sure, however, to post an update when the problem is handled so your customers know you now have a satisfied customer.)

The best way to prevent and defuse negative reviews is to be active on your Yelp page. Check in daily and respond to both positive and negative reviews. By being active on Yelp, you’ll be seen as a caring business owner. You’ll also gain credibility among potential customers and boost your rank within Yelp.

Spending a little time each day is a small price to pay for something that can make such a big difference in attracting customers, don’t you agree?