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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!