Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Most business owners would like to think they're in control of their own brand identity, but quite often that's not the case, particularly online.

Whether you're actively engaging with your audience online or not, chances are you already have a presence there, be it on Foursquare or Yelp or other sites — even if you haven't claimed the listing.

Being proactive can help improve local search results and prevent others from defining your brand, say experts.

"You need to control your reputation online and know what's being said about you," says Andrea Vahl, a Boulder, Colorado-based social media consultant and co-author of "Facebook Marketing All-In-One for Dummies" (Wiley; $34.99).

Claim the listings. Know what sites your business is being listed on and officially claim those listings, says Vahl.

Oftentimes, your business may be listed on local sites like Foursquare, Google and Yelp, but not by your own doing. A customer may have added your business to one of those sites, explains Vahl.

You can claim the listing as the actual business owner through an online verification process, which allows you to update and correct information, she notes.

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Start by doing an online search under your company name to see where it is already being listed, says Vahl, noting talkwalker.com/alerts can help you monitor your brand online.

If you have not officially claimed your identity on these sites, then do so, she advises. Usually it just involves clicking "claim my listing."

Check accuracy. "You want accurate information on these sites," says Mitch Tobol, a partner at CGT Marketing, an advertising and digital marketing agency in Amityville. The information someone else listed about you may be incorrect. Make sure you have the correct address, phone number, hours of operation and website included, he notes.

Make sure your business name, address and phone number are consistent across all your listings, advises Brian McGovern, a Manhattan-based digital marketing strategist. This will help in search rankings, he notes.

Keep it simple. Don't get too broad in your description or use of keywords on these sites.

"A mistake I see a lot of people make is they get greedy and try to rank for every possible keyword," says McGovern. This ends up confusing the search engines, resulting in lower rankings, he notes.

Be specific and keep your listings simple, clear and consistent, he advises.

When trying to identify what sites you should be on, search some competitors' names, the category of your business and the word "reviews," he suggests. That will bring up sites most relevant to your business.

"The sites that matter most are the ones with a high user-generated content such as reviews," adds Tobol. These include Foursquare, Yelp and Google My Business.

Check the mainstream. You should of course also claim your business name on the popular sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, he says. "You don't have to use it, just claim it," says Tobol.

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Dee Muma, owner of Dark Horse Restaurant in Riverhead, has claimed her listing on sites including Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor, Foursquare and Yelp.

"My staff and I want to interact with clients who both like us, are curious about us or feel they had a bad experience," she notes. By actively claiming relevant sites and keeping a watchful eye, it helps avoid any misinformation and spiteful comments from "unscrupulous competitors," says Muma.

She and her staff monitor the sites multiple times a week and address any comments if necessary. "If you're not managing your business online, you may find someone else is," she notes.