September 2012

Ethical Ideas for Local Window Dressing


Personally, I can never walk by a Chinese restaurant without stopping to read the menu. Sometimes, it’s pasted in the window. Other times, it is enshrined in a little wooden box, perhaps accompanied by newspaper clippings or semi-fuzzy photos of appetizing fare. Drawn like a moth to candle flame, I want to see what the restaurant has given pride of place to by the front door.

Mike Blumenthal recently highlighted an example of local window dressing gone wrong. The article features a snapshot of a plaque in a restaurant window that gives the first impression that the business may have received some type of award or special notice from Google+. On closer inspection, however, we discover that:

  • The plaque isn’t from Google – it was ordered from a third party at the cost of $300.00.
  • The review sentiments quoted on the plaque apparently don’t exist on the restaurant’s Google+ local page. So, they’re either fictitious or drawn from some non-Google source.
  • The company selling these plaques is apparently using other big brand names (like Yahoo) on their merchandise.

Mike Blumenthal states:

I am not sure who I think less of in this situation, the restaurant that was trying to appear more than they really are by leveraging Google’s name and their review product or the company that soaked them $300 for the “privilege”.

On the one hand, I agree, but I also find merit in Travis Van Slooten’s comment:

I’m not going to jump on the business owner or the guy selling the plaques as quickly as you guys did. Yes, the plaques take advantage of these big brand names, and there may even be some legal issues using their trademarks – who knows. However, how is this any different than a business owner highlighting his best reviews from Google, Yahoo, etc. on his own website? This is just an offline version of it. Yes, the plaques look like an award at first glance but if customers aren’t going to pay attention and actually read it, that’s their problem (in my opinion).

For the record, I don’t condone the false representation of review sentiments, nor the possibly unauthorized use of brand names by a third party in exchange for money, but I do believe there is a fantastic idea here, once we look past misrepresentation and potential legal issues.

The economy continues to be tough on all kinds of businesses, restaurants included. If you own a restaurant (or a vacuum cleaner repair shop, an ethnic foods market, a fabric store, an antique shop or any other type of brick-and-mortar store), you should be doing everything you can to make passing foot traffic halt at your door. Take a look at the plaque in Mike’s post and learn from it.

But, resolve to do it right.

Your local poster shop, sign maker, or your own computer can partner with you to create an eye-catching, truthful ‘merit badge’ for your front window. Here are some suggestions for ethical local window dressing:

1. Make your sign large enough to draw attention.
2. Choose bright, arresting colors and create the most professional design and layout you can.
3. Highlight real review snippets that you are most proud of.
4. Highlight your personal affiliations with brands. *See below.

*I’m not an attorney, but I do know that Google founded its Local Business Index by publishing the contact data for countless local businesses without prior permission from the business owners. If you’ve stepped into the fray, claimed your local profile, and are staying awake nights sweating over your online reviews, I would say you are definitely in a relationship with Google, Yelp, et al.

While I do not approve of a third party trading on the brand names of these companies without permission, I believe that local business owners should have the right to state that they are on Google and Yelp and Yahoo. After all, all of these big companies are cleaning up big time, thanks to the existence of local businesses. So, I would not have a problem with a Chinese restaurant putting Google’s logo on a sign followed by Google+ based reviews. If Google decides to have a problem with this, I think they’ve lost it.

Could ‘Merit Badges’ Be Effective At Improving Walk-In Business?
I would think so. The very fact that the restaurant in Mike’s example was willing to pay $300.00 for the questionable plaque is indicative of potential value.

Just picture yourself in a busy downtown with three Chinese restaurants on the same block. Two have a menu in the window, but nothing else. The third not only has a menu, but also a ‘merit badge’ highlighting their glowing reviews from valued customers. Not only would this show an acquaintance with modern business practices, but it is also a voucher for accountability. I would hypothesize that business owners who are showcasing online reviews care extra about providing great customer service, because they have come to terms with the powerful part customer sentiment plays in the solvency of their businesses.

As always, take the high road here. Don’t create a misleading plaque meant to fool viewers into thinking Sergey Brin presented you with an award, but do make use of the opportunity to show off the glowing praise which your happy customers have awarded you.

It’s a small but good idea.

Honored To Become A Mod At Linda Buquet’s Local Search Forum!

Today, I’m so proud and happy to announce joining the staff at Linda Buquet’s Local Search Forum as their first-ever moderator! If you run a local business or are a Local SEO and you’ve not yet heard of this awesome, targeted forum, please come by. Topics that are really important to you are being discussed there daily, and given that Linda is a Google Place Help Forum Top Contributor, you can count on a level of conversation and advice that is second to none in the Local sphere!

In addition to working as a community associate in the SEOmoz Q&A forum, I’ve been a moderator at Cre8asite since 2008. A discussion I’ve seen come up time and again in the SEO world is whether forums are still valuable to people. Believe me, they definitely are, and while those newer sound-byte, quickie Social Media platforms like Twitter serve a definite purpose, they cannot replace the depth of communication you will find in a top tier forum.

What I’ve learned from my work in fora is that really good ones have these elements:

- They cover topics that directly affect the concerns and goals of business owners.
- They are peopled by friendly, sharing contributors – not ego-driven know-it-alls.
- They are equally welcoming to novices and pros, addressing all questions with thought and care.
- They build a community where you like and learn from great people and you feel really comfortable there.

Linda Buquet’s Local Search Forum meets all these criteria, providing a wonderful environment for all of us in Local to share our challenges and successes. It is truly an honor to join the staff, and I sincerely hope to add to the friendly atmosphere and knowledge bank at the Local Search Forum. This will be fun!

Do You Care If A Review Was Solicited? Tell Me, Tell Yelp!

My post of last week, Yelp’s Review Filter – Splitting Grammatical Hairs, received some very thoughtful comments. This week, I want to follow up with a survey, and I’m asking you to comment with your answer to my key question:

Does It Really Matter To You If A Review Was Requested By The Business Owner?

I want to take a careful look at this. For review, Yelp’s policy is that flat-out requesting a review from a customer is ‘bad’ and strictly verboten. Google’s policy is a little more reasonable, if we’re all understanding it correctly and I never hold my breath on such assumptions. The common interpretation of Google’s policy is that you can ask for a review…so long as you don’t ask for a positive review. So, again, my question:

Does It Really Matter To You If A Review Was Requested By The Business Owner?

Let’s envision several scenarios here to consider whether solicitation of reviews really matters or not. Please note…I am not talking about faked or purchased reviews. I’m talking about a business owner saying, “Please, leave me a review,” at the end of a positive transaction.

The Restaurant
You’re looking for the classic bowl of clam chowder, the perfect pizza or the uber udon noodles. You flash through a few Yelp listings and glance at the reviews. You see that such-and-such restaurant is one Yelper’s favorite eating joint, that ten people opined that it was pretty good and that two people said it could be a whole lot better. You decide the place is worth trying. You go there and dig in.

What just happened?
You got a ‘sense’ of what other people think about a restaurant and, using your own noggin, made a decision that you’d check the place out for yourself. No one forced you to go. You made up your own mind.

What if some of the reviews you read were requested by the business owner?
Well, if you really loved the meal, you’ll find you were in agreement with those who gave the place their highest rating. If it was just a decent bite to eat, you’ll be like a lot of other people who felt as you do. If you have a dreadful meal, you’ll be in the company of those who had the same experience.

If the reviews were mostly really positive and you have a bad experience, are you out to find someone to blame, as in, “Well, Yelp users said they liked it, so they lied to me. I’ve been had!” I really doubt it. I would guess you would chalk it down to different tastes, differences in gustatory expectations or a chance bad day at the restaurant.

And, if you discovered that the business owner was in the habit of asking for reviews from happy customers, would that have changed anything that you did? Thinking it through…would you have done something different, such as not visiting the restaurant?

My guess is…
No. Finding that the restaurant exists (using Yelp like a search engine) and seeing that a lot of people have gone there and had positive or varied experiences, you would want to check it out for yourself to see what you think. That is, after all, the final word on this. What you think at the time of service is much more important than what Mike B. thought. This is your dollar and your experience. Had you stepped in the front door and seen a dead rat under one of the tables, you would probably have turned around and walked out, regardless of the fact that Mike B. enjoyed his meal 3 weeks ago, right?

So, as far as I can see, the solicitation aspect doesn’t come into the finding of the business, getting a sense of the sentiments about it and then going forth to make up your own mind. If I’m missing something in this scenario where you would have paused to consider whether the reviews were solicited and that this pause would have changed whether you went to eat at the place or not, please tell me about this in the comments.

The best and worst…
The best upshot of the above would be that you find a good new place to eat thanks to reading about it on Yelp. The worst outcome would be that you have an awful meal…but, that’s not really the end of the world, is it? It’s just a bad meal and your life can continue on.

It’s A Brand New Car!!!
So, worst case scenario, you’ve blown $10-$100 on a lousy meal. You’ll recover. But let’s look at one of the highest dollar items we humans buy: cars. You look up local auto dealerships in your region on Yelp. Again, you see some positive ratings, some so-sos and some tales of woe. You’re out to buy a new hybrid car, and there are only so many dealerships you can visit for that particular purchase in a 100 mile radius. You decide to visit every dealer who has these cars within that radius.

Let’s say you use Yelp as your helper and, instead of starting with the dealership closest to you, you start with the one that has the highest Yelp rating. Again, you’re using Yelp as a type of search engine to get an approximation of sentiment.

Now you actually set out and visit the dealerships. Depending on the quality of the unique businesses, you may be neglected at one, overly pressured at another, find an awesome deal at one, find a great future maintenance plan at another.

The best and worst…
The best case scenario will be that you happened to hear on Yelp that a particular dealership featured some outstanding quality that you will experience yourself when you go there. The worst case scenario is that you will waste several hours sitting in an office that reeks of tire fumes and you won’t buy a car. The worst case scenario is NOT that you will accidentally buy a car because of a review having been solicited on Yelp. You’re quite a bit smarter than that, I am sure.

If some of the reviews were solicited…
Would it have changed a single thing you did? I doubt it. You would still have visited the local dealerships and made up your own mind, whether Yelp existed or not, whether reviews were spontaneous or requested. Do you agree?

My guess is…
That you will pick the best deal for you. You will not buy a car at a particular dealership solely because Mike B. did. You may visit a dealership because Mike B. said it was great, but you – not Mike B – is going to make the final decision about whether you buy that car.

The Service Provider
This, in my opinion, is the toughest category. A restaurant can’t trick you into thinking it exists or serves meals if it doesn’t. The auto dealership can’t trick you into believing it has real cars for sale if the lot is empty. But, the service provider can trick you, if he is a crook.

This can have very real consequences if you are engaging someone to:

- Restore water damage in your home
- Open your door locks
- Move your furniture to a new house
- Work on a critical component of your vehicle
- Handle your investments or insurance

Hire a crook, and you could end up with a toxic situation in your house, a future burglary, stolen furnishings, a car accident or mismanagement of your finances and documents. Clearly, these things are of far more important concern than buying a pizza with a soggy crust.

Thinking it through…
If you encountered a crook via a Yelp listing and he had solicited reviews, how would this affect you? Again, please note that I am not saying that he faked reviews. I’m saying he asked his customers to leave them. If he’s a crook, chances are, people are going to jump on Yelp to say so, whether he asks them to or not. So, here we have the powerful warning potential baked into the Yelp system. If you find a listing with a ton of negative reviews on it…

My guess is…
You will avoid doing business there. So, in this specific scenario, it is very possible for Yelp to have a direct impact on whether you consider doing business with someone. It seems far less likely to me that a crook is going to manage to get a bunch of positive reviews, solicited or not, than that he will call down the wrath of the Yelp reviewer community on him, getting bad reviews left and right, solicited or not.

So, here, the scenario is something like how the Better Business Bureau is supposed to work. A negative rating could protect you from doing business with a bad apple. So long as the reviews are real and not faked, negative reviews may have a real impact on your safety and protection. Whether they are solicited or not, again, seems not to be a genuine factor in this.

But…
If you need to engage in a transaction in which your health and life, the security of your home or the management of your finances is hanging in the balance, you should never be basing the decision of whom to do business with on online reviews.

Not because…
Reviews can be solicited, but because they can be faked.

You need to be requesting license numbers, credentials and other real-world forms of verification if you’re dealing with vital transactions. You need to use good sense.

My Conclusion
The three scenarios I’ve outlined appear to me to point to a single conclusion – solicitation of reviews isn’t really part of the equation in anyone’s mind but Yelp’s. I urge you, if you disagree, tell me why.

Barring the unlikely possibility that someone is being forced to leave a positive review on pain of death, the reviewer is going to tell the truth of his experience, positive or negative. Even if we stretch our hypothesis to include kindly individuals who feel they must say something positive if they’ve been asked to say anything at all, such tender souls are probably few and far between. In my extensive perusal of Yelp reviews, the unifying quality I’ve noticed is that Yelpers really value having their own say. They aren’t being dictated to. They want to tell their own story, regardless of whether they’ve been asked to or not. Believe me, if someone replaces their fresh-ground coffee with Folger’s Crystals, they’re going to yelp about it.

My Request
Please weigh in now with your opinion. Again, the question:

Does It Really Matter To You If A Review Was Requested By The Business Owner?

I really want to know whether Yelp’s policy represents your realistic feelings about doing real business in the real world.

Yelp’s Review Filter – Splitting Grammatical Hairs

Toronto Local SEO Matthew Hunt has written a very thoughtful article aimed at understanding how Yelp’s review filters may be applicable to Google+ Local review marketing. I highly recommend you read it. My own perusal of a segment of Matthew’s post brought up some thoughts and feelings I have on the subject, which I’d like to share with you.

One of Matthew’s objectives is to dispel the myth that you cannot solicit reviews on Yelp, Google Local, and other review sites. In my view, myths typically emerge in an atmosphere of confusion and, sometimes, fear. The purpose of many myths and moral tales is to prevent the hearer from making missteps. In this case, you are trying to be careful not to offend the review gods, lest they smite you!

In 2010, Director of Outreach and Public Policy at Yelp, Luther Lowe, blogged the following statement on the company’s official blog:

There is an important distinction between “Hey, write a review about me on Yelp,” [BAD] and “Hey, check us out on Yelp!” [GOOD]. It’s the difference between actively pursuing testimonials and simply creating awareness of your business through social media outlets.

(bolded emphasis mine)

According to Lowe, there is an important distinction between the two scenarios he describes. Personally, I am not convinced of the clarity of this particular distinction.

Matthew Hunt’s interpretation of this stated Yelp policy, as it pertains to how a business owner should communicate with his customers, echoes the interpretation I believe many people would make. He states:

If they tell you they found you on Google, then you ask things like: “Did you read the online reviews?” and “Do you leave reviews yourself?”. If they answer is yes, then tell them that you get a lot of business from folks who take the time to write a review online and that you greatly appreciate all feedback provided by your customers and hope they do the same.

Again, I think Matthew’s post is really intelligent, but if this interpretation of the policy is correct, then it all basically boils down to a grammatical distinction between the imperative and conditional mood. We’re talking about the difference between:

Review me on Yelp (an imperative command)

and

If you use Yelp, I hope you’ll review me (a conditional statement)

I am not seeing a mind-blowing distinction between these two scenarios. It is hard for me to believe that the reputations of local businesses and their vitally important reviews can live or die based on this slight of a tweak of grammar.

In both cases, the customer is being nudged toward taking an action. Does Yelp really want to be the fly on the wall, listening to whether the business owner is stating “review me” or “I hope you’ll review me”?

Why should this matter so much? Why is asking flat-out for a review so bad? Being direct is just part of being human, and part of doing business honestly. It’s hard for me to believe that Yelp’s picture of the local business world is peopled by business owners who tiptoe around their storefronts and the web just *hoping* for reviews, *hoping* that they are ‘creating awareness’ of their businesses ‘through social media outlets’.

The real world doesn’t work like that. Effective local business owners take direct approaches to everything, offering the best products and services, the best customer experiences and their best face to the world, day in, day out. They are not staring off into the clouds and hoping that good things will come to them.

Should Yelp really expect them to?

I’m a daily witness to the frustration and disappointment caused by nebulous review filtering. I find trying to explain Yelp’s stated ‘important distinction’ to clients very challenging. It’s like the difference between saying,

“Don’t go into the woods; there’s a dragon in there.”

and saying…

“You might not want to go into the woods because there might be something in there that isn’t exactly a dragon, but is more like a big fire-breathing lizard.”

When policies nitpick over what boils down to a grammatical dispute, I start to feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about. And if I don’t know what I’m talking about, how can I expect my clients to?

So, if there is a myth that I would like to see dispelled, it stems from Yelp itself and their sometimes unrealistic expectations of local business owners. Google is even less communicative than Yelp about the exact nature of their policies. In such an atmosphere, people can develop all kinds of myths, hoping to walk the line, but in the absence of total transparency, they may be walking down the wrong road altogether.

In 2012, people know review sites exist unless they’ve been living off the grid for the past five years. Is it not possible that, sometimes, this awareness of the existence of review sites might not be quite enough, given the massive power online reviews now have over the reputation of businesses? Might it not sometimes be quite a natural thing to ask a happy customer for a review? Should the sky fall down if a business owner does so?

Something there is that doesn’t love a powerful policy that turns smart business owners into contortionists, fretting over grammar instead of taking a direct and honest approach, asking for a review at the end of a job well done.

Goodness knows, I am not inciting anyone here to break rules, but if rules split such fine hairs, I’m not sure I feel much respect for them.

My challenge to the Yelps and Googles of the world:

Your indexes are populated with the lifeblood of real local businesses. Without them, where would you be? When you make policy, don’t give me this stuff about BAD and GOOD without backing it up with a convincing argument about the important distinction between them. Yelp’s current policy has come to seem rather arbitrary to me. I think everyone would be happier with a transparent explanation of how the rules make sense, instead of an unexplained imperative command.