Tuesday 18 Dec 2007
Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!
If you own a small business that provides a local service, it’s time to learn about Google Reviews. No doubt, you have heard of sites like Tripadvisor, Yelp, and Insiderpages. These independent user review sites enable citizens to publish their opinion about local businesses. Google Reviews functions along the same line, but packs its own powerful punch by being an integral part of Google’s Local tool: Google Maps. This post offers a brief tutorial on the basic components of Google Reviews, and gives some additional thoughts and commentary on their importance in the Local scheme of things.
The above image shows what a Google Maps user gets when they do a query for a business in a local location. In this instance, we’re doing a search for ‘fabric store santa rosa ca’. On the right hand side of the screen, you get the nice big map, and on the left, you get a column of results as shown above. The results are each given a letter of the alphabet with ‘A’ being the #1 result. The huge red arrow is pointing to the link that will appear next to any business for which Google has found a review. These reviews come from diverse outside review sites, in addition to coming directly from Google Reviews. When you click one of those little review links, you get a pop-up over the map that looks like this:
The A-G arrows designate the following components you will find in this pop-up.
A: Write a Review
This is the link you click if you would like to write a review. We’ll return to that function in a moment.
A review is accompanied by a row of stars with a top rating of 5 stars.
C: Outside Reviews
This arrow points to the source from which Google has pulled a review. It might be from Tripadvisor.com, Insiderpages.com, or a number of other exterior sites. When you click on these green links, they take you to the review site in question so that you can read the full text of the review.
D: Google Reviewer Profile
When a review is written directly in Google Reviews, the reviewer has a profile, and that is what this arrow is pointing to. You can click the profile link to see all of the reviews that person has created. More on that subject in a moment.
E: Full Text of Review
As with D, Google Reviews have a special blue link for reading the full text of a review written using Google Reviews. Rather than taking you to an outside source, the pop-up window simply expands to show the complete text of the review.
F: Flag as Inappropriate
As with D and E, F is a function that only applies to reviews written using Google Reviews. It gives the option to flag content as inappropriate. This might be a good function to use if, for example, you found someone spamming a set of results with an announcement to go to a competitor’s website.
Users can cast a vote as to whether any review was helpful or not, whether from Google or another source, and this is what the G arrow is pointing to.
Obviously, any local business would like to get as many positive reviews as they can, and it can be a matter of serious pride to see your pertinent business information accompanied by glowing acclaim from your patrons, but, as with nearly all areas of the web, Google Reviews is suffering from spam.
In the current, energetic discussion going on over at Convert Offline regarding the quality of user reviews, a local florist gave a jaw-dropping example of what Google Review spam looks like. If you follow that link, you will see the inglorious trail of a Google user who has written 8 identical reviews besmirching the good name of 5 San Francisco florists and 3 in other locations, giving them each only one star and advocating that everyone do business with a competitor. This user even goes so far as to put the web address of the competitor in his outrageous spam.
You would think that Google would immediately notice this foolishness and kick it out of the index of reviews, and I would love to hear from anyone who has attempted to report something like this. Did the flag as inappropriate function work for you? Did Google respond? How quickly? What humans can see automatically with their eyes may be a little more challenging to the ‘blind’ eyes of Google’s bots. If you’d like to read more about current local spam issues, I recommend this article and this one from one of our favorite Local friends, Mike Blumenthal.
Spammers aside, Google Reviews are intended to provide true accounts from customers, and the best way to see how the process of writing a review works is to try it for yourself. Think of a local business (not your own) that you like or dislike, and go find it by searching for it in Google Maps. If it’s been indexed, click the ‘write a review’ link as shown in the above illustration. You must have a Google account (for something like GMail, Adsense, Adwords, etc.) and you must be signed in to write a review. When you click the link, you’ll see the following:
You’ll be giving your review a title, such as ‘Bob’s House of Shoes is the Best in Town’. You’ll rate Bob’s with the number of stars you think it deserves. You’ll write your review in the form provided. You can make it long or short. The main point is to make it truthful. When you’re done, simply hit ‘Save’. It may take some time for you to see your review show up, or it may be instantaneous.
How important are reviews?
One of the theories I am currently hearing most often in the Local Search world is that a business needs to be in the top 3 to really see the benefits of Google’s Local service. Why is this? Because currently, at least as I understand it, only 1% of users are actually going into Google Maps to perform Local searches. The other 99% are simply typing searches of a Local nature into Google’s organic search. An example of a Local search query would be ‘fabric store santa rosa ca’. Very often, doing a search like this will cause what is sometimes called a ‘one-box’ result to appear at the top of Google’s organic results. It looks like this:
As you will note, Google is only showing its top 3 results in the one-box. Thus, if you’re not in that top 3, 99% of the users may not discover that your business exists because they won’t ever actually enter Google Maps.
Reviews, whether from Google Reviews or an outside review site, are one of the things that determines where your business is ranked in Local. Thus, reviews are going to be very important to local businesses.
Are some reviews more powerful than others?
As Mike Blumenthal recently pointed out in his post about Google Maps reviews, Google initially seemed to be placing greatest importance on the number of reviews a business had. For example, if restaurant #1 had 2 reviews and restaurant #2 had 47 reviews, the expected result would be that restaurant #2 would rank higher. However, over the past few days, the talk has been that it may be the quality not the quantity of reviews that is carrying new degrees of weight with Google.
As I understand it, a single review from a reviewer who has written about 80 different local businesses may be more powerful than a handful of reviews that are one-offs, written by reviewers with only one review to their credit. This theory, if correct, indicates that Google is attempting to give a type of trust score to reviews. It would stand to reason, then, that your local business would do well to network with ‘power reviewers’. This might mean sending an email, a sample, a coupon, or what have you by way of striving to gain the attention of folks who spend a lot of time reviewing local businesses.
A second factor that deserves consideration is whether Google is likely to trust reviews written through their own service more than they would reviews coming from outside of Google. In late November, local business owners began noticing that reviews they had received from Citysearch.com had suddenly disappeared from their Google Maps business profiles. Google evidently decided that Citysearch data is untrustworthy in some way. The reason for this remains unknown, but it provides an object lesson for all small business owners that non-Google reviews could be devalued or eliminated at any time, hypothetically causing your Maps rankings to drop.
Because of this, I would suggest that smart local business owners focus serious effort on driving potential reviewers toward Google Reviews rather than elsewhere. I have not, at present, seen any data to indicate that a review from Google’s service inherently outweighs a review from, say, Tripadvisor.com, but Google’s tendencies toward a monopolistic view of the world do indicate to me that playing in their ballpark is always a safe bet.
Other factors that may determine the power of a review
- Number of stars
- Age of review
- Number of helpfuls or not helpfuls
This last bullet point is a recent addition to Google Reviews, and indicates that Google is seeking ever new fine degrees of ways to determine relevance. However, I fear that this feature may be misunderstood by the general public. Try to define ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’. Is a review helpful only if you agree with it? If a patron gets food poisoning at the local chili house and writes a review of this, will the chili house staff go and mark the review as unhelpful? Like so many parts of the review system, misunderstanding and outright spam threaten to weaken the value of the service. Google may be using the above clues and many others to get a picture of just how valuable each review is and how much effect it should have on your business’ ranking.
Good job, Google
For just a moment, I’d like to stand aside in plain admiration of what Google has done with Maps and with Reviews. This service has the potential to be incredibly helpful, and I count myself amongst the 1% of users who is going to Maps all the time to find data I need. The user interface is fantastic, and they’ve made writing a review as easy as possible. The one drawback for local business owners who are attempting to get their patrons to leave a Google Review will be that the patron must have a Google account. But, beyond this, it really is a breeze to use this set of tools.
If you’ve yet to write a Google Review, why not try it out today? No doubt, there are numerous businesses in your neighborhood about which you’ve got something to say. Google has made it easy for you to speak up.
A Note of Caution
There really are some serious spam issues affecting Google Maps. The easily traceable, foolhardy stuff like the user leaving the 8 identical spam reviews illustrates how people will go out of their way to game the system and end up looking rather silly doing so. If you want Google Maps and Google Reviews to be of quality, use it in a neighborly way.
Even if you run the best Mexican restaurant in town, and your top competitor is a grouch with a filthy kitchen and incompetent staff, resist the urge to blast him via negative reviews. If they can be traced to you, you will be creating unnecessary bad blood in your local business community and giving competitors a sweeping invitation to retaliate with dreadful reviews of your business. Reputation management wars are never fun for the parties involved.
Similarly, think twice before leaving an enraged or unfairly damaging review of any local business. Asking yourself whether you’re seeking revenge for a small annoyance or a one-time mistake before you hit that ‘Save’ button may be a kind and just thing to do. You wouldn’t want to mar someone’s reputation unjustly. A nicer way to go would be to be honest about your dissatisfaction and make serious suggestions about how the business could improve itself. Chances are, they will read your review, and if it contains genuine feedback, they just may implement your advice.
One of the things I love most about the whole Local Search world is that it is about community. Reviews are becoming a very powerful way for each member to give their own unique input about how they would like their community to do business.