Attract Local Searchers and Boost Search Results Rankings

You have probably heard the saying, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” (That is not actually the complete saying, but more on that later). The theory behind this saying became solidified for a short time earlier this month when Google was prompted to update its algorithm. The reason? found a loophole wherein it used negative consumer reviews to boost its Google search results ranking. For those who are unfamiliar, the online eyewear retailer was essentially noting that the more reviews it received, regardless if they were good or bad, the higher its Google ranking became. So this e-tailer set out on a campaign of bad service to increase the volume of reviews to its business.

Now the rest of the saying, coined by Irish author Brendan Behan, goes: “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” By boasting to The New York Times, this e-tailer got the attention of Google and essentially wrote his own obituary as it relates to his search position.

The concerning fact, though, is that the e-tailer’s strategy worked. Google acknowledged this by adjusting its algorithm to ensure businesses that provided bad customer service would have lower search results rankings. In a blog posted a few days after The New York Times article was published, Google issued this response: “…we developed an algorithmic solution which detects…merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience…We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google. And we will continue to work hard towards a better search.”

Controversy aside, legitimately-earned consumer reviews really are paramount for a local business to gain visibility on search engines and social directories like Yelp.

How Ratings and Reviews Impact Local Search

Research from my company with comScore in our “Local Search Usage” study shows that just over 60 percent of local searchers find ratings and reviews to be important, which is up four points from 2009. This percentage increases when looking at social networkers and mobile users, specifically (78 percent of social networkers and 71 percent of mobile users find consumer ratings and reviews extremely important). Additionally, social networkers and mobile users tend to use ratings and reviews more than any other type of local searcher.

Also, what is particularly interesting about consumer ratings and reviews is that, unlike other factors that influence local searches, the usage of ratings and reviews is fairly consistent across different groups of demographics. As the chart below demonstrates, no one group of U.S. Internet users posts reviews online significantly more than any other, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, September 2010.

Demographic Profile of U.S. Internet Users Who Have Posted Reviews of Products/Services Online, September 2010
% of respondents in each group

The Ratings and Reviews Paradox

Here is the paradox. Ratings and reviews are not only used by large percentages of consumers to shape their purchasing decisions, they also positively affect a local business’ search results rankings. But only a small percentage of consumers create review content. So in effect, a vocal minority currently control the destiny of a lot of the review material. Therefore, encouraging an authentic dialogue about your local business online has taken on even greater importance to a local business’ success.

Here are a few very simple tips to help ensure your business gets the reviews both consumers and search engines want and need:

  1. Encourage your current customers to write about your business at the point of purchase. Once you have obtained their reviews, submit them to relevant websites/forums with other reviews (being careful not to submit positive reviews only). Feature these reviews in an easy-to-use and easy-to-find section on your site.
  2. Build a presence on sites like Citysearch and Yelp, whose cores are centered on consumer reviews (utilizing a distribution network can assist in this). This is essential, as the reviews from listings on these kinds of sites get pulled into Google Places pages. So much so that reviews from these sites are often quoted directly in Google Places results, like the below listing found in a search for pizza in Milwaukee.
  3. Pay attention to and engage your social networkers. We already learned from our Local Search Usage study that social networkers not only use reviews the most, but they also find them to be extremely important. It only makes sense that they are the kinds of customers that are more likely to submit reviews elsewhere.
  4. Once you have obtained reviews, do not forget to respond to them; take advantage of what will surely become many opportunities for two-way interaction.

Take the Good, Learn From the Bad

Above I use the term “authentic dialogue,” and this concept is vitally important. Consumers are not expecting businesses to have all five-star reviews. Instead, they are looking for a business with average to above-average ratings that address and engage consumers directly when there is the occasional less-than-perfect experience. Once you work to increase the dialogue, you need to be prepared to use the input to improve your customer service experience. Finally, nothing is worse than a review that consumers reject as non-authentic. We have all seen these before – content usually generated by the proprietor or close friend or relative that reads more like an advertisement: “…check out their lobster specials on Tuesday nights…”

These tips probably sound rather elementary, but consumers are thirsting for the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth referrals that ratings and reviews provide. It stands to reason that merchants that increase the dialogue about their businesses benefit in the long run.

The bottom line is that consumer ratings and reviews are the gifts that keep on giving. When they are properly leveraged, local searchers get the reviews they want/need to make their shopping decisions, and, in turn, local businesses get the reviews they want/need to both attract these searchers and boost their search results rankings.

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