Cybersquatting, hacking, domain hijacking, intellectual property theft - your brand is under threat in so many ways online that you might wonder if doing business online is worth it.
However, most threats are now well recognised and there are ways to deal with them. With a few simple precautions, you can eliminate 95% of the risk, and the rest probably isn't worth worrying about.
Here are some simple tips to help protect you from people who want to leverage your hard-earned brand equity for their own profit.
1 Trademark your brand
In the UK, trademarked terms are protected online under law. Even the biggest company on the internet, Google, was unable to use its 'Gmail' brand in the UK because someone else already owned the name. If you haven't already done so, trademark your brand.
2 Brand your domain
Ideally your domain name and brand name should be the same. Since so many domains are already taken, this may be difficult, so you might have to use a different brand online, though this means you lose the benefit of your existing brand awareness. If you cannot make your brand name your domain, at least include it in your domain. As far as possible, purchase all the main relevant domains, such as .com, .co.uk, .eu, .info and .biz, to prevent cybersquatting (someone else taking up one of the domains and using it for commercial or other purposes). Your ecommerce website developer can help with this.
3 Prevent domain hijacking
Make sure your domain is 'locked' by your domain registrar, to block unauthorised transfer requests. If you don't, someone could gain control of your domain, at least for a time, by tricking your registrar into passing control to them, for example, by telling them you have left the company and they have taken over.
4 Keep out the hackers
Having your website hacked can cause immediate harm to your business - and longer-term damage your reputation. Most hackers break in for the challenge rather than any real malice, but they are likely to leave an unpleasant mark of their presence. This can range from defacing or replacing your home page to deleting files on the site - which could include your latest batch of orders.
One of the most common and easiest types of hack uses a dictionary to try to guess your FTP password. Make sure your password is not a single word in the dictionary. Make sure it is not easy to guess or written anywhere a disgruntled employee could find it. And if anyone who knows it leaves, change it straight away. If you manage your domain name through an online control panel, treat that in the same way.
Most important of all, use a secure ecommerce package for your online ordering, so that credit card details will be held in an encrypted format. That way, even if your site gets hacked, at least your customers will be safe and your online sales won't be affected. That way, your reputation will be relatively untarnished.
5 Claim your brand
Make sure every page on your ecommerce website and every downloadable document includes your brand name and logo in a prominent position. There should be no doubt about your rights to ownership of your brand. Without going over the top, make it clear that you fully intend to protect that ownership.
6 Top the search for your brand
Your aim should be to come first on Google in any search specifically for your brand. In practice, this might be hard to achieve, but don't let that stop you trying. Optimise your home page for your brand name, by using it at least three or four times in the text of the page and include it in the page title, meta description and meta keywords tags, and in text links that point from other pages to the home page. At very least, you need to be higher up in the search results for your own brand than any of your competitors.
7 Protect your copyright
Put a clear and visible copyright notice on every page of your ecommerce website, and in any documents you publish online (eg pdfs). Search Google occasionally for a few unique phrases that you have used on your site, enclosing them in quotes, to see if anyone has copied them. If they are partners or resellers, that may not be a problem. Otherwise write or email them with instructions to remove the content. If they refuse, get a solicitor to write a legal 'cease and desist' instruction, threatening legal action if not.
8 Search advertising
One way online competitors can try to use your brand name to their advantage is to pay search engines to display their 'pay-per-click' advertisement to everyone who searches for you. This is a deceptive practice and one that can be quite confusing for customers.
In the UK (though not in the US), you can prevent advertising against your registered trademark, and Google, Yahoo! and MSN all have procedures for dealing with infringements. Try politely emailing the offender asking them to desist, but often it saves time and effort to go straight to the search engine and have it removed.
Chris Barling is chairman of SellerDeck, a company he co-founded in 1996. An ecommerce expert, enthusiastic entrepreneur and business angel, Chris has a passion for helping small businesses take advantage of new technology. He has over 30 year' experience in the IT industry.