Social media and the Internet are powerful tools for small businesses. That's because their customers increasingly begin their shopping on the Internet, and they use social media such as online reviews when considering which products to buy and which businesses to support.

For that reason, the Internet is a double-edged sword. Used well, the Internet and social media can help small businesses. Online marketing techniques and tools, for example, can help small businesses reach prospective customers who otherwise would have no way of knowing about them. Online marketing can help small businesses sell goods and services anywhere around the world, 24x7. And online marketing can help small businesses compete with giant corporations.

However, if ignored by small companies, the Internet can hurt business. Witness the following case in point.

"Customer Service Sucked!"

A while back I met the owner of Foy's Bike Shop in Woodland, Calif., when I went into the store to buy an inner tube. When I got back home, I looked him up online to see what Foy's is doing in the way of online marketing. Turns out, the bike shop didn't have a website (and still doesn't). Instead, my search on Bing turned up the following results.

How the Internet can hurt small businessesThe very first result listed a customer who had not had a positive experience: "I recently bought a bike from Foy's. It took 4 months to get it. Customer service sucked!"

To be fair, there were also a number of positive reviews in the results page. And, as I mentioned, I had met the owner myself, and I thought he was quite helpful and pleasant.

Still, as this example shows, small businesses ignore online marketing at their own peril. If they are not proactive, if they don't invest time and effort creating and managing an online presence, it will be managed for them. And not necessarily in ways they prefer.