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May 3, 2013

The Increasing Importance of Reviews in Local Search Results

In a world where 30 to 40 percent of searches are local, local results are now dominating the SERPs. Google’s local results, now merged with Google+, have long allowed businesses to claim their listing and primp it up with photographs, a personalized description, and more. Undoubtedly, in your local searches you’ve noticed user reviews – and perhaps they have even swayed your purchasing decisions for the better (or for the worse, as the case may be). The same thing is happening to your customers, and it’s pretty apparent that your Google+ local reviews are only going to keep getting more and more important.

Google has always looked for ways to improve their algorithm, and as we all know they make changes to it all the time – one or two per day, hundreds of tweaks per year. With the development of features like Author Rank and Brand Rank, Google has been trying to lend a human signal to calculations made by a machine, which are by their very nature robotic. What’s more human than a review?

Online reviews are fundamentally important to your bottom line, too. The 2012 Local Consumer Review Study found that 72 percent of consumers trust online reviews just as much as they would trust a personal recommendation made by a friend. And over half (52 percent, that is) went so far as to say that positive online reviews make them more likely to purchase from that business. That’s a pretty strong signal.

It looks like positive reviews are going to have some amount of ranking power within local results in the near future, if they don’t already. Google wants the best experience possible for their users, and ranking by reviews is going to help them get there.

To get those reviews, it might be tempting to go out there and post some glowing reviews of your own, or pay someone else to put them together and post them. Google has been tweaking the spam protection on their reviews in the past few months, so if you were thinking about it, now is probably the time to stop. Google posted some helpful advice for business owners in Google Groups. Among their tips: Don’t trust SEOs who want to write you great reviews. Don’t trust anyone who says they can remove negative Google reviews (Pro tip: they can’t). Encouraging your employees to toot your horn on Google+ or offering your customers incentives for leaving reviews are no-nos as well.

A Search Engine Watch post nixed two other illegal, but admittedly creative, workarounds: You can’t type up your customers’ comment cards as reviews (“We ask that all reviews come from first-hand experience and do not allow posting reviews on behalf of others”) or plop a computer or tablet down inside your business asking for reviews then and there. Google wants all your business’ reviews to come from your customers on their own time and in their own words.

So what are you allowed to do? Good question. You may get a few reviews naturally (people are already accustomed to the idea of reviewing restaurants, and some parts of the service industry are following suit), but Google also encourages you to send reminder emails after your customers make a purchase.

But those aren’t the only ways – it doesn’t hurt to post a reminder in your storefront (you’ve probably seen those “Find Us On Yelp” stickers — same principle applies) or follow up with any mentions you get on social media. You should already be monitoring your brand on social media — set up Google Alerts or filters in your Twitter tool of choice — this just gives you something to do when someone tweets about your business. Obviously only actively encourage those who’ve had a good experience to leave a review!

Which brings us to… bad reviews. Oh, l’horreur! What do you do? Well, first off, definitely don’t do nothing. Just as you wouldn’t stubbornly ignore a screaming customer in your store, you should not ignore a frustrated or downright terrible review. Keep an eye on your listing, and when a bad review does come through, politely respond. Offer your apologies for the poor service, and if there is any way to make that customer happy (you can let them know when an item is back in stock, you can take another look at something you installed in their home), offer it right there. While it might not be a great idea to offer that customer a discount on a future purchase (doing so might teach your customers that they can get specials by reviewing you negatively), if you can offer a solution to their problem it will make everyone happier.

Of course, the best thing you can do to combat a bad review is to push it down with a bunch of good ones. It’s obvious that Google is going to assign increasing importance to local reviews in the future, especially as they improve their methods of fighting spam reviews. Getting ahead of the curve now and getting some reviews will give your business a boost when this happens.

Adrienne Erin is an SEO and social media marketer for companies like Victor Pest, a company that sells rodenticides and the classic Victor mousetrap.

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