The Power of Reviews in Local Search

Reviews are popping up on locally focused Web sites everywhere and for a very good reason. When people try to decide where to purchase a product or service, ratings and reviews are exactly the kind of information they’re interested in. Reading reviews is the equivalent of asking a friend, neighbor, or coworker for the name of her dentist, car repair shop, hair stylist, or favorite Italian restaurant. The Internet now allows people who have interacted with a local business to share information with others online, even if they’re not acquainted.

Reviews are important to your business because potential customers read and consider them when making buying decisions. It’s critical to be aware of what’s being said about your business online and to try to improve the areas about which people tend to complain. This boosts your online reputation and helps you to provide better services and products to your customers.

It’s a very rare enterprise that gets raves from all its clients, and most of us understand that a small percentage of negative ratings is to be expected. You simply can’t please everyone every time, so a lack of online complaints can look contrived. Having relatively few negative comments is OK. However, too many can hurt because poor ratings can significantly affect the number of phone calls and customers referred from local search engines, such as Google Maps and Yahoo Local. This is also true of other local directories, such as Superpages, Insider Pages, and Citysearch.

Poor reviews and ratings can even influence your rankings in the local search engines. Some powerful sites, like Yahoo Local, allow users to sort the search results they see by their ratings. If people choose to see the businesses with the worst ratings, it’s very likely they’re only interested in weeding out the ones they should avoid. Most searchers will choose to see the more highly rated businesses instead. If yours isn’t one of them, shoppers may never even consider it because it won’t appear in the results they see.

Google Maps enables users to personalize their search results by ratings. In addition, it displays snippets of reviews right in the results. The one or two lines that people read here can certainly influence whether they explore that business further or dismiss it from consideration.

On some local platforms, ratings actually enter into the ranking algorithm. In Yahoo Local, a business must first get enough reviews to meet a predetermined threshold. While Yahoo hasn’t revealed what that number is, I suspect it varies relative to the category and the competition within the category in that location. Once this threshold is crossed, ratings and reviews kick in to influence the rankings, with good ones helping and bad ones hurting. In Google Maps, local business listings seem to get a boost in ranking simply by having a large number of reviews, regardless of whether they are favorable or not. Encouraging happy customers to write online reviews about your business can improve your ranking in both of these big local search engines.

Reviews also affect your rankings because they affect the click-through and bounce rates to your local business listing and Web site. The search engines want to return the most relevant results for each query, and user behavior is a good indication of relevance. If a search result doesn’t get clicked on very often, it must not be very relevant.

Bounce rates affect rankings in a similar way. If a searcher clicks through to a page and immediately clicks back, it must not be what she was seeking. Good reviews and high ratings can result in high click-through rates and low bounce rates. Bad reviews and poor ratings can have the opposite effect. Search results determined to be irrelevant through user behavior lose favor in the algorithms, while relevant results are rewarded.

Both stellar and stinky online reviews about your business can have an enormous influence on your local search presence and on your business itself, so you can’t afford to ignore them. Instead, be aware of what’s being said about you online and work to correct the sources of dissatisfaction mentioned by your customers. Your reward will be higher rankings, more leads, and happier customers, all of which will help your business grow stronger and more profitable.

Join us for ClickZ Presents: Online Marketing Summit, September 25 at the Sheraton San Diego.

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