Reviews and Local SEO: A Primer
Although they weren’t part of the initial release of Google Maps, reviews have been a fixture on Google’s local properties for over a decade. The reason is obvious: frankly, consumers love reviews.
BrightLocal consumer survey data suggests that over 90% of consumers use reviews to evaluate local businesses, and 84% of them trust reviews just as much as a personal recommendation! So it’s no wonder that Google features them so prominently.
It stands to reason that if consumers love reviews so much, Google’s ranking algorithm does too. Businesses with robust review profiles on Google–and beyond–tend to be rewarded with higher rankings.
Reviews create a virtuous cycle. More reviews lead to better visibility, which leads to more customers, which lead to more reviews. Quite simply, gathering and encouraging customer reviews is one of the most sustainable marketing techniques your business can engage in.
Only Google engineers know for sure, but local search experts have theorized for years that Google primarily evaluates reviews across the attributes below. They’re listed in order of importance for competitive searches, according to the experts surveyed for the Local Search Ranking Factors project.
Google’s entire local algorithm is designed to represent the offline world online in the most accurate way possible. In Google’s ideal world, popular businesses rank near the top of search results, and less popular businesses rank further down. Reviews are one of the easiest ways for Google to assess popularity.
All other factors being equal, popular businesses tend to serve more customers than less popular ones. But remember as I said earlier in this guide, Google can only “see” what’s represented online.
So if your customers leave reviews of your business at a higher rate than your competitors’ customers do, your business will appear more popular, and stands a good chance at outranking the competition.
The area in which Google’s algorithm has arguably improved the most over the past 3-4 years is in semantic analysis. And in fact one of the earliest datasets on which Google trained its semantic algorithm was local business reviews. As early as 2009, Google highlighted key terms and phrases that it found consumers using to describe local businesses.
So not only is Google looking at the number of reviews when assessing the popularity of local businesses, it’s looking at what people are saying about local businesses in those reviews.
For example, doctors whose patients frequently mention a particular kind of treatment in their reviews are likely to rank better for searches for that treatment. Contractors whose customers mention the kind of projects they execute, such as “kitchen remodel,” are likely to rank better for searches for those kinds of projects.
Google’s ability to semantically analyze reviews includes a sentiment filter. Adjectives like “great,” “terrific,” or “best” are likely to move the ranking needle for your business more than reviews with adjectives like “mediocre,” “average,” or “OK.”
The content of your customers’ reviews isn’t necessarily something you can control, but prompting your customers to think about particular questions as they write their review (“What service did we perform for you?,” e.g.) can help improve the effectiveness of those reviews with respect to your rankings.
A common misconception–compounded by misleading testimony from Google executives–is that Google does not use third-party reviews to rank local results. This could not be further from the truth. In some cases, reviews on third-party sites can improve your rankings even more than comparable reviews left directly at Google.
It’s not only a best-practice, it’s essential to earn reviews from your customers on a number of sites beyond Google. (More on this below.)
Star / Numerical Rating
You may be surprised to see star ratings listed this low as a ranking factor, but generally speaking Google’s algorithm seems to value volume and sentiment much more strongly than the star rating that customers leave for a business.
With nearly 80% of reviews being three stars or above (even on Yelp!), it’s not particularly useful for Google to split hairs between a 4.2 and a 4.4-star business, for example.
Where rating may play a larger role is in consumer choice–according to BrightLocal, a majority of consumers see the rating as the most important review factor in choosing a business.
While Google’s review spam filter leaves much to be desired, there’s some evidence to suggest that the account of the reviewer may have some positive influence on how much weight his or her review carries.
Reviews from more active reviewers likely carry more weight, in much the same way that Yelp Elite (essentially, highly-active Yelpers) reviews carry extra weight in Yelp’s algorithm.
Google has its own version of Yelp Elite called Local Guides, and their reviews are almost certainly more trusted than others’.
The velocity or frequency with which customers leave reviews may also impact a business’s rankings. The BrightLocal survey referenced above found that 73% of consumers think that reviews older than three months are no longer relevant.
While Google’s “review expiration date” is considerably longer than three months, especially in less-frequently-reviewed industries like DUI law or addiction treatment, it’s likely that business with a steady stream of new reviews will outrank those with a stale review profile.
As I touched on in the Diversity section above, you don’t want to focus your review acquisition efforts solely on Google. In fact, reviews on prominent sites like Yelp have been proven to single-handedly increase rankings for businesses in smaller markets with limited competition.
See this empirical study by Mike Blumenthal showing the impact of Yelp reviews on dive bar rankings in Mike’s hometown of Olean, NY.
Just as with citations, you want to have reviews on the sites where Google expects popular businesses to have reviews. The only difference between the sites where you should acquire citations vs. the sites where you should acquire reviews is that data aggregators don’t offer reviews as a feature.
It nearly goes without saying that you should do your best to acquire customer reviews on Facebook and Yelp — two platforms used to research local businesses by tens of millions of consumers every month. Yelp syndicates its reviews to Apple Maps, meaning even more consumers will read them. And of course, Facebook is Facebook — the app in which we spend one out of every 5 of our mobile minutes.
Industry-specific and Local Reviews
Beyond these two giants, you should look at the sites that show up in Knowledge Panels for your competitors (and high-ranking businesses similar to yours in other geographic markets).
Sites like the ones listed in the Knowledge Panels above likely have direct relationships with Google to feed them reviews, or mark their code up in such a way that Google can’t help but pull in their review information.
Also take a look at the review sites that show up for searches matching the pattern
[your keyword] [your city] [reviews]
and note the review sites that appear in the top 20 (or so) organic results — especially the ones with gold stars in the organic results.
In a limited set of categories related to dining and nightlife, Google also displays Critic reviews from well-known editorial sites in those categories. It’s likely that businesses reviewed by these lists have an advantage over businesses that don’t appear. I expect we’ll see Google rolling out Critic reviews to more categories in the future.
I can’t emphasize this point enough: implementing an intentional review acquisition process has become an essential element of success in local search.
Knowing the importance of customer reviews, you might be tempted to blast all of your customers at once, asking them to leave reviews. Or worse, you might be considering simply buying your way to the top with a bunch of fake reviews from Fiverr or similar sites. These techniques will likely lead to success in the short-term and dramatic pain in the long-term as Google and other review platforms get better about cracking down on this kind of behavior–which is fairly trivial to spot algorithmically.
Instead, a steady drip of reviews–depending on your industry, this could be a handful per month, or a handful per week–is what will lead to sustained long-term success.
There are plenty of affordable software companies that can help you implement this intentional review acquisition process. I recommend GatherUp, run by a team of local search experts. Grade.us is an excellent option as well. But do a little research and see which service is right for your business.
The diagram below, used by permission of GatherUp, shows how their platform works (and other similar platforms work).
In a nutshell, review services automate the process of collecting feedback from your customers, and prompt happy customers to leave reviews on third-party review sites. Importantly, they can also help you determine your Net Promoter Score, and identify areas for improvement within your business.
Far beyond the ranking benefits that a stream of positive reviews can have, review services can help you get out in front of bad reviews with a controlled feedback mechanism. They enable you to capture complaints and act on them before they spread around the Internet.
Getting Yelp reviews can be a challenge, thanks to Yelp’s overaggressive review filter and historically asinine policy on review solicitation. (Most review services don’t include Yelp in the list of sites on which they solicit reviews.)
My opinion is that it’s well worth the (minimal) risk to ask for reviews on Yelp, though, if you’re able to identify prospective customers who already have a Yelp account, and provided you’re emailing customers individually, one at a time, instead of a mass solicitation.
Check out this excellent post by Phil Rozek on how to pre-identify potential Yelp reviewers for your business.
Under no circumstances should you offer an incentive to leave a review on Yelp (or any other platform). This is a violation that will get you blacklisted and if the incentive is not disclosed, may violate United States FTC guidelines or similar laws in other countries.
As Mike Blumenthal of Near Media likes to say: “There are two kinds of businesses in the world. Businesses that have gotten a bad review, and businesses that will get a bad review at some point.” No matter how great your business is, it’s bound to happen.
Many sites, including Google and Yelp, allow for you to respond to that bad review as the business owner. The important thing to keep in mind is that the real audience for that response is not this particular customer, but the dozens or hundreds of prospective customers who read your response and evaluate your empathy for the reviewer and attempt to resolve the complaint.
See this excellent guide on responding to complaints for more best practices for review responses.
Another benefit of subscribing to a review acquisition service is that many of these services include an embeddable testimonials widget as part of your subscription.
This gives you compelling, keyword-rich content that can improve your website’s position in organic search results, and provides social proof to prospective customers who visit your website.
Even if you don’t subscribe to a review acquisition service, you can replicate this process by copying-and-pasting snippets from some of your favorite customer reviews onto your website, but make sure you get the permission of the person who left the review before doing so.
This technique works particularly well for the reviews of your business that Yelp has filtered. To find them, scroll down to the bottom of your Yelp page and look for a link similar to this one:
Click that link to open an accordion-style window. Ignore the propaganda from Yelp at the top, and scroll down to find another link that looks like this one:
This will give you a complete list of filtered reviews, which no search engine has indexed. Many times the customers who left them are incredibly frustrated that Yelp has hidden their comments, and are more than happy to give you permission to promote their comments in full on your website.