Review sites can be both a blessing and a curse for retailers, whether they are online stores, brick-and-mortar, or both. It used to be that as a company, you had to monitor the review sites for a host of different things such as correct spelling of your business name, the right hours of operation, and the correct addresses (both URL and physical). As the members of social media communities get savvier and start to recognize the power they literally have at their fingertips (think smartphones here), the power of review sites becomes increasingly more relevant to your marketing strategy, both online and offline.
As keynote speaker Maile Ohye, senior developer programs engineer at Google, showed at SES Chicago this year, Google is stepping up the integration of reviews into its search engine results. The use of Bazaarvoice’s reviews and other Google-approved review systems are now showing up as part of the search results. That’s a clear signal that it’s becoming even more important that companies start to pay attention to this aspect of social media.
But the question then becomes, if there are a lot of reviews, how are these weighed in the search engine? Is it the amount of reviews? Is it the overall rating? Is it the conversation that is going on in the comments of the reviews? Of course, we won’t ever be privy to any of the search engines’ secret sauces, but still, as marketers, we have to look beyond just the search engine results and at the impressions the reviews and the actions of the reviewed companies leave in the minds of community members and searchers alike.
I bring up the aforementioned questions about the power of reviews in the search engine results (SERPs) because of an article in The New York Times. In David Segal’s “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web,” he points out in rather vivid and scary detail how a company uses negative reviews to push themselves up in the search engine results. The company, an online retailer that sells eyeglass frames and contact lenses, has horrible service. Not only that, when customers complain and stop payment via their credit card companies, the owner takes to more serious means of phone and e-mail threats of a very graphic nature.
As Google gets more serious about incorporating social media and social community information into its results, it tries to do that in an efficient way, via its algorithm. To hand check reviews and score them would be quite an overwhelming and daunting task for any search engine, but with the sheer mass of Google’s index, hand checking reviews is nearly impossible. While its mantra is “Do no evil” and it wants to serve “the most relevant results” for the “best user experience,” the question becomes: How does a situation like the one David Segal describes have such power in the results when the company is apparently evil, the results aren’t really relevant, and certainly won’t give their users the best experience?
Reading Signals: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Does it take a New York Times article to get bad companies out of Google’s index?
The company mentioned in the article takes the art of mastering and manipulating reviews and their relevance to Google to a whole new level. The more people complain, the higher that company goes in the search engine results. Is that really how reviews are supposed to work? A normal person would think not.
The company is basically using the negative reviews to its advantage with search engine rankings, or at least they were until this article hit the presses. Do a search for any brand name mentioned in the article now and the company is nowhere to be found. Prior to The New York Times article, it ranked on the first page for many of the terms mentioned. It seems that soon after The New York Times article was published, they’ve magically vanished from appearing for the keywords that were driving customers to their site. Why did it take an article in The New York Times to make that happen, and not its algorithm taking signals from all the negative reviews?
If you look through those reviews, you (a human) can very plainly pick out the “fake” reviews – all of them rate the company as a five and say they got their shipment on time and in good shape. There’s a pretty big disparity in the reviews though – either five stars or one star, and largely it’s a lot of one star reviews. It would seem that while Google is in a rush to incorporate social media into its algorithm, it can’t yet take signals from “good” and “bad” just yet.
So what does that mean to online marketers and companies venturing into marketing in these spaces? It means that no matter what, you should be factoring in social reviews as part of your marketing plan to monitor and maintain. Reviews don’t just affect the impressions community members see of you, they affect the impression of searchers on Google, Yahoo, and Bing now, too.