How Google’s Carousel Conviced Me That Review Counts Count For Nearly Nada

Google Carousel Reviews

Working with a will to earn great reviews for your local business?

Believe your company’s high customer satisfaction standards and pro-active review earning policies will be rewarded by Google?

You may be right…but then again, you may not be. Let’s take a look at this.

Whether or not you are fan of Google’s new carousel view for businesses like hotels and restaurants, one thing it has made quite easy for everyone is an at-a-glance assessment of review counts amongst competitors. Since the launch of the carousel, I have read some comments to the effect that this new display is the great leveler – in other words, that there are no longer rankings for these types of businesses.

I can see some sense in that opinion, with every business being displayed on a single horizontal plane. However, I would suggest that in a culture like mine that reads from left to right, what comes furthest to the left automatically seems to indicate priority. That’s where paragraphs start when you read, where newsmen pack their grabbiest words in a headline and where SEOs put their most important elements in a title tag. My brain has been trained to think that most left is most important. This is why you read the words ‘I can see’ at the beginning of this paragraph first instead of starting somewhere in the middle.

Because of this, as a Google user, some part of me assumes that the businesses ordered closest to the left of my screen have somehow been judged by Google to be of more relevance than those further to the right…certainly of more importance than those I have to start scrolling horizontally right in the display bar to view.

And this brings me back to the topic of my piece – the disconnect between left-to-right rankings and review counts. Now, nobody but a few wizards at Google knows the exact amount of influence review count has on overall local business rankings, but from the effort local business owners and Local SEOs have put into the earning of reviews over the past half decade, it’s obvious that most of us think reviews are pretty important.

Imagine my surprise in noting how little review counts seem to matter in regards to where a business is situated in the carousel

I did a bunch of informal searches for ‘restaurants’ in both small and large cities and will share just a few of the results. These results reflect what I saw across the board. I will call the restaurants 1, 2, 3 etc., for the sake of explanation, with 1 being the restaurant appearing most to the left in the carousel display. I will show the first 10 results for each search and will focus on a large city, a medium-sized town and a tiny village in California, none of which are where I am physically located.

Search Term: Restaurants San Francisco

1. 54
2. 761
3. 1795
4. 175
5. 21
6. 2768
7. 827
8. 156
9. 389
10. 1752

Note that: Restaurant #3, with 1,795 reviews is being surpassed by one restaurant with only 54 reviews and another with 761. Also, that restaurant #6 has nearly twice as many reviews as anyone else, but is only 6th in line.

Search Term: Restaurants San Rafael

1. 221
2. 19
3. 6
4. 266
5. 103
6. 15
7. 10
8. 140
9. 26
10. 11

Note that: Why is restaurant #3 with only 6 reviews standing in line in front of competitors with 266, 103 and 140 reviews?

Search Term: Restaurants Boonville

1. 4
2. 0
3. 107
4. 5
5. 0
6. 5
7. 8
8. 27
9. 70
10. 14

Note that: In this tiny village, it certainly looks to me like restaurant #3, with 107 reviews, is the place people go, but it is somehow being cut ahead of in line by an eatery with ZERO reviews and another with only 4. Restaurants 8 and 9 are also way down the line behind several review-less establishments.

The above summary gives just a sampling of this phenomenon. Note that my small study has not taken into account review velocity or recency, but I can’t help thinking that any average user is going to wonder why a business with no reviews is being given precedence over one with 107 of them.

What This Tells Us
Honestly, it doesn’t tell us much about how Google’s algo works for local businesses. But…I would posit that if you are trying to do competitive analysis to appear more towards the left in the carousel, the sheer number of reviews you have isn’t going to influence your hoped-for change of positioning. If you can be outranked by a restaurant with zero reviews, getting 100 of them for your business probably won’t help.

So What Should You Do, Then?
I would suggest looking at other factors like the authority of the website and both the consistency and breadth of citations. Maybe social factors, too? Perhaps locally relevant links or unstructured citations? I purposely didn’t search in my own town because I didn’t want my proximity to any business to influence my results, but that will almost certainly be a factor, too – how close your prospective patron is to your place of business.

Am I Saying To Forget About Reviews?
No, no! Regardless of the influence of review counts on rank, your customers’ glowing reviews of your rosemary polenta and baba ghanoush will do much to bring the hungry public through your doors. I’m just saying that if you’re working yourself into a sweat about being too far to the right of the screen in the carousel, it may be best to invest the bulk of your time in improving metrics other than review counts.

What do you think? Is there a flaw in my logic? Do left-to-right displays make you think left is better? Are you seeing any patterns that explain who is ranking left-most? Would you like to share? I’d love to hear!

9 Responses to “How Google’s Carousel Conviced Me That Review Counts Count For Nearly Nada”

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  2. on 05 Jul 2013 at 12:16 pm Linda Buquet

    Hi Miriam,

    Thanks for posting this topic in my forum. I’ll answer you there in more detail with a link to more info.

    But this is a great subject and one I’m working on a big related post about. I have seen SO many articles about the carousel saying now reviews matter more than ever and Google is surfacing the listings with the most reviews.

    Yes with carousel reviews may be more important visually.

    But as you pointed out they aren’t what controls the algo.

    The carousel uses the blended algo. The blended algo ranking order is primarily about organic ranking factors.

    I’m having a debate with someone in my forum now and as a result and going to post proof and document why I’ve been saying this for so long. (Bout time eh?)

    So anyway, like you said reviews ARE important for a great variety of reasons but they don’t control ranking order. They are just one small part but not the most important part.

    Thanks for the insights!

  3. on 05 Jul 2013 at 12:19 pm admin

    Hi Linda,
    I am totally excited about reading your upcoming post! I will stay tuned. Thank you for reading this and commenting.

  4. on 05 Jul 2013 at 12:30 pm Darren Shaw

    Great observations and great post Miriam. I agree.

    Depending on the industry, I think you can get a fairly significant ranking boost if you have no reviews and then you get a few. After 10 reviews, there are diminishing returns from a ranking perspective. This is especially true in industries where reviews are rare. Google likes to show the businesses that have more information for the searchers to read through. It’s a better user experience.

    From a user perspective, I think higher review count can be helpful. It can show that the business is popular which might make a person more likely to click on it to check it out. So, while a high review count might not help you rank better, it could still help to drive more business.

  5. on 05 Jul 2013 at 1:14 pm admin

    Really good points, Darren…particularly appreciate your insight on diminishing returns after 10 or so reviews. That is good to keep in mind. And agreed – reviews have a very real effect on how your business looks to potential customers. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  6. on 05 Jul 2013 at 3:02 pm Phil Rozek

    Hi Miriam,

    First of all, serious props for publishing this on the 4th of July! Great insights. Thanks for posting.

    Strictly in terms of rankings, I agree that reviews are but one factor of many. There’s a very strong correlation between rankings and reviews, as I found in the research I did in July of 2011. But still…the business with a 100 reviews can be outranked by one with zero reviews, as you pointed out.

    But beyond that, my take is slightly different. I think that businesses with good rankings but no or few reviews are largely wasting their rankings. In the classic 7-pack layout we all know and love, businesses with more Google reviews stand out quite a bit more than the ones who have none (or fewer than 10). In the carousel they certainly don’t stand out. But to the extent that Google rolls out the carousel more broadly and the novelty wears off, people will probably get used to picking businesses partly based on the tidbits of review info that shows up in the carousel – rather than just clicking on the left-most result. Assuming Google doesn’t change the carousel around before searchers can adapt to it, my guess is that many will adapt and start looking at the review info, despite how unflashy and subdued it looks in the carousel

    Also, it’s always been the case that businesses should do more than hammer away at reviews. But they’re still ultra-important. Part of that has to do with branded searches: what happens once the left-most business gets clicked on, and the potential customer sees no / few /negative reviews on the Google listing, or no / few / negative reviews on other sites? He/she may just click on another business.

    As probably everyone here knows, I obsess over reviews for my clients, so maybe take my comments with a grain of salt :)

    P.S. It’s uncanny that you mentioned baba ghanoush; that’s what I ate while I read this!

  7. on 06 Jul 2013 at 12:01 pm admin

    Hi Phil!

    First of all:

    “It’s uncanny that you mentioned baba ghanoush; that’s what I ate while I read this!”

    Haha! I can’t believe that. I must have ESP.

    I really like this point you make:

    “I think that businesses with good rankings but no or few reviews are largely wasting their rankings.”

    I’ve never heard that stated quite in the way you have and it rings very true with me. As I’ve said, reviews are important, entirely apart from whatever influence they have on rankings and you’ve explained some of the reasons why.

    What I’ve become less convinced about is the correlation you mention between reviews and rankings. Someone needs to do a way bigger study than mine and prove to me that there is a direct relationship between the two things. I have just seen too many instances (both pre and post-carousel) of review count apparently being so massively outweighed by other factors that a zero-review business can outrank review-heavy competitors. One thing I really should have looked into was velocity/recency, but hey, I had to go light off some fireworks!

    Maybe someone can follow up. Maybe I will!

    Appreciate you taking the time to leave some very good thoughts here…and I hope it was good baba ghanoush!

  8. on 14 Jul 2013 at 7:27 am matthew hunt

    Nice insights Miriam,

    I agree with Darren’s point. Having more reviews could increase the CTR.

    I’ll take any way possible to send more business to my clients listings… it’s not always about rank.

    Just like how you can be in position 3 or 4, but have author markup showing up and where 1 and 2 isn’t and you might just get more a CTR then over 1 and 2.

    Did you consider the sediment in the “reviews” ? Do you think that Google is looking at the sediment, and maybe whether they were reviews which were left by folks who checked vs not checked in. Or by how many reviews were left by power reviewers, or from people who have a robust google+ social profile, etc.

    Reviews may matter, but we don’t yet know how they weigh reviews.

    I think it’d be interesting to look at all the reviews and try to weigh each of them based on several factors, then look at the rankings. Maybe it’s not being weighed by the number of reviews, but by the weight/quality of each review.

    Even if we could figure out the ‘weight’ of each review we still can’t tell how much of a ranking factor “reviews” are overall b/c there are so many other possible factors involved in local rankings.

    I think at the the end of the day, I still follow best practices to get as many reviews as possible and ideally from people who have a social profile on Google+, who review a lot, try to have a positive sediment in your reviews, and get consistent reviews.

    Oh, and NOT only focus on Google, but to get reviews all all the major reviews sites in your industry. I am sure I am missing a few other best practices, but the other brilliant local SEO’ers can pipe in. ;)

  9. on 14 Jul 2013 at 11:40 am admin

    Hi Matthew,
    Great comment. I think this would be especially interesting:

    “Or by how many reviews were left by power reviewers, or from people who have a robust google+ social profile, etc.”

    I did not look at this in this initial post and think it would be be quite interesting to see if there is any sign of influence coming from this. Totally!

    The bizarre thing is, in the follow-up post I did to this, I discovered that nearly all of the reviews on these profiles were from longer than a year ago. I’m still turning this over in my mind. In these towns, Google-based reviews are almost missing in 2013.

    But, I agree, CTR and other factors still make getting reviews incredibly important. Appreciate your insights very much.

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