Location Data + Reviews: The 1–2 Punch of Local SEO

Posted on May 27, 2017

Posted by MiriamEllis

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My father, a hale and hearty gentleman in his seventies, simply won’t dine at a new restaurant these days before he checks its reviews on his cell phone. Your 23-year-old nephew, who travels around the country for his job as a college sports writer, has devoted 233 hours of his young life to writing 932 reviews on Yelp (932 reviews x @15 minutes per review).

Yes, our local SEO industry knows that my dad and your nephew need to find accurate NAP on local business listings to actually find and get to business locations. This is what makes our historic focus on citation data management totally reasonable. But reviews are what help a business to be chosen. Phil Rozek kindly highlighted a comment of mine as being among the most insightful on the Local Search Ranking Factors 2017 survey:

“If I could drive home one topic in 2017 for local business owners, it would surround everything relating to reviews. This would include rating, consumer sentiment, velocity, authenticity, and owner responses, both on third-party platforms and native website reviews/testimonials pages. The influence of reviews is enormous; I have come to see them as almost as powerful as the NAP on your citations. NAP must be accurate for rankings and consumer direction, but reviews sell.”

I’d like to take a few moments here to dive deeper into that list of review elements. It’s my hope that this post is one you can take to your clients, team or boss to urge creative and financial allocations for a review management campaign that reflects the central importance of this special form of marketing.

Ratings: At-a-glance consumer impressions and impactful rankings filter

Whether they’re stars or circles, the majority of rating icons send a 1–5 point signal to consumers that can be instantly understood. This symbol system has been around since at least the 1820s; it’s deeply ingrained in all our brains as a judgement of value.

So, when a modern Internet user is making a snap decision, like where to grab a taco, the food truck with 5 Yelp stars is automatically going to look more appealing than the one with only 2. Ratings can also catch the eye when Schema (or Google serendipity) causes them to appear within organic SERPs or knowledge panels.

All of the above is well-understood, but while the exact impact of high star ratings on local pack rankings has long been speculative (it’s only factor #24 in this year’s Local Search Ranking Factors), we may have just reached a new day with Google. The ability to filter local finder results by rating has been around for some time, but in May, Google began testing the application of a “highly rated” snippet on hotel rankings in the local packs. Meanwhile, searches with the format of “best X in city” (e.g. best burrito in Dallas) appear to be defaulting to local results made up of businesses that have earned a minimum average of 4 stars. It’s early days yet, but totally safe for us to assume that Google is paying increased attention to numeric ratings as indicators of relevance.

Because we’re now reaching the point from which we can comfortably speculate that high ratings will tend to start correlating more frequently with high local rankings, it’s imperative for local businesses to view low ratings as the serious impediments to growth that they truly are. Big brands, in particular, must stop ignoring low star ratings, or they may find themselves not only having to close multiple store locations, but also, to be on the losing end of competing for rankings for their open stores when smaller competitors surpass their standards of cleanliness, quality, and employee behavior.

Consumer sentiment: The local business story your customers are writing for you

Here is a randomly chosen Google 3-pack result when searching just for “tacos” in a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area:

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We’ve just been talking about ratings, and you can look at a result like this to get that instant gut feeling about the 4-star-rated eateries vs. the 2-star place. Now, let’s open the book on business #3 and see precisely what kind of story its consumers are writing. This is the first step towards doing a professional review audit for any business whose troubling reviews may point to future closure if problems aren’t fixed. A full audit would look at all relevant review platforms, but we’ll be brief here and just look at Google and Yelp and sort negative sentiments by type:

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It’s easy to ding fast food chains. Their business model isn’t commonly associated with fine dining or the kind of high wages that tend to promote employee excellence. In some ways, I think of them as extreme examples. Yet, they serve as good teaching models for how even the most modest-quality offerings create certain expectations in the minds of consumers, and when those basic expectations aren’t met, it’s enough of a story for consumers to share in the form of reviews.

This particular restaurant location has an obvious problem with slow service, orders being filled incorrectly, and employees who have not been trained to represent the brand in a knowledgeable, friendly, or accessible manner. Maybe a business you are auditing has pain points surrounding outdated fixtures or low standards of cleanliness.

Whatever the case, when the incoming consumer turns to the review world, their eyes scan the story as it scrolls down their screen. Repeat mentions of a particular negative issue can create enough of a theme to turn the potential customer away. One survey says only 13% of people will choose a business that has wound up with a 1–2 star rating based on poor reviews. Who can afford to let the other 87% of consumers go elsewhere?

There are 20 restaurants showing up in Google’s local finder for my “tacos” search, highlighted above. Taco Bell is managing to hold the #3 spot in the local pack right now, perhaps due to brand authority. My question is, what happens next, particularly if Google is going to amplify ratings and review sentiment in the overall local ranking mix? Will this chain location continue to beat out 4-star restaurants with 100+ positive reviews, or will it slip down as consumers continue to chronicle specific and unresolved issues?

No third-party brand controls Google, but your brand can open the book right now and make maximum use of the story your customers are constantly publishing — for free. By taking review insights as real and representative of all the customers who don’t speak up, and by actively addressing repeatedly cited issues, you could be making one of the smartest decisions in your company’s history.

Velocity/recency: Just enough of a timely good thing

This is one of the easiest aspects of review management to teach clients. You can sum it up in one sentence: don’t get too many reviews at once on any given platform but do get enough reviews on an ongoing basis to avoid looking like you’ve gone out of business.

For a little more background on the first part of that statement, watch Mary Bowling describing in this LocalU video how she audited a law firm that went from zero to thirty 5-star reviews within a single month. Sudden gluts of reviews like this not only look odd to alert customers, but they can trip review platform filters, resulting in removal. Remember, reviews are a business lifetime effort, not a race. Get a few this month, a few next month, and a few the month after that. Keep going.

The second half of the review timing paradigm relates to not running out of steam in your acquisition campaigns. One survey found that 73% of consumers don’t believe that reviews that are older than 3 months are still relevant to them, yet you will frequently encounter businesses that haven’t earned a new review in over a year. It makes you wonder if the place is still in business, or if it’s in business but is so unimpressive that no one is bothering to review it.

While I’d argue that review recency may be more important in review-oriented industries (like restaurants) vs. those that aren’t quite as actively reviewed (like septic system servicing), the idea here is similar to that of velocity, in that you want to keep things going. Don’t run a big review acquisition campaign in January and then forget about outreach for the rest of the year. A moderate, steady pace of acquisition is ideal.

Authenticity: Honesty is the only honest policy

For me, this is one of the most prickly and interesting aspects of the review world. Three opposing forces meet on this playing field: business ethics, business education, and the temptations engendered by the obvious limitations of review platforms to police themselves.

I recently began a basic audit of a family-owned restaurant for a friend of a friend. Within minutes, I realized that the family had been reviewing their own restaurant on Yelp (a glaring violation of Yelp’s policy). I felt sorry to see this, but being acquainted with the people involved (and knowing them to be quite nice!), I highly doubted they had done this out of some dark impulse to deceive the public. Rather, my guess was that they may have thought they were “getting the ball rolling” for their new business, hoping to inspire real reviews. My gut feeling was that they simply lacked the necessary education to understand that they were being dishonest with their community and how this could lead to them being publicly shamed by Yelp, if caught.

In such a scenario, there is definitely opportunity for the marketer to offer the necessary education to describe the risks involved in tying a brand to misleading practices, highlighting how vital it is to build trust within the local community. Fake positive reviews aren’t building anything real on which a company can stake its future. Ethical business owners will catch on when you explain this in honest terms and can then begin marketing themselves in smarter ways.

But then there’s the other side. Mike Blumenthal recently wrote of his discovery of the largest review spam network he’d ever encountered and there’s simply no way to confuse organized, global review spam with a busy small business making a wrong, novice move. Real temptation resides in this scenario, because, as Blumenthal states:

Review spam at this scale, unencumbered by any Google enforcement, calls into question every review that Google has. Fake business listings are bad, but businesses with 20, or 50, or 150 fake reviews are worse. They deceive the searcher and the buying public and they stain every real review, every honest business, and Google.”

When a platform like Google makes it easy to “get away with” deception, companies lacking ethics will take advantage of the opportunity. All we can do, as marketers, is to offer the education that helps ethical businesses make honest choices. We can simply pose the question:

Is it better to fake your business’ success or to actually achieve success?

On a final note, authenticity is a two-way street in the review world. When spammers target good businesses with fake, negative reviews, this also presents a totally false picture to the consumer public. I highly recommend reading about Whitespark’s recent successes in getting fake Google reviews removed. No guarantees here, but excellent strategic advice.

Owner responses: Your contributions to the consumer story

In previous Moz blog posts, I’ve highlighted the five types of Google My Business reviews and how to respond to them, and I’ve diagrammed a real-world example of how a terrible owner response can make a bad situation even worse. If the world of owner responses is somewhat new to you, I hope you’ll take a gander at both of those. Here, I’d like to focus on a specific aspect of owner responses, as it relates to the story reviews are telling about your business.

We’ve discussed above the tremendous insight consumer sentiment can provide into a company’s pain points. Negative reviews can be a roadmap to resolving repeatedly cited problems. They are inherently valuable in this regard, and by dint of their high visibility, they carry the inherent opportunity for the business owner to make a very public showing of accountability in the form of owner responses. A business can state all it wants on its website that it offers lightning-quick service, but when reviews complain of 20-minute waits for fast food, which source do you think the average consumer will trust?

The truth is, the hypothetical restaurant has a problem. They’re not going to be able to resolve slow service overnight. Some issues are going to require real planning and real changes to overcome. So what can the owner do in this case?

  1. Whistle past the graveyard, claiming everything is actually fine now, guaranteeing further disappointed expectations and further negative reviews resulting therefrom?
  2. Be gutsy and honest, sharing exactly what realizations the business has had due to the negative reviews, what the obstacles are to fixing the problems, and what solutions the business is implementing to do their best to overcome those obstacles?

Let’s look at this in living color:

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In yellow, the owner response is basically telling the story that the business is ignoring a legitimate complaint, and frankly, couldn’t care less. In blue, the owner has jumped right into the storyline, having the guts to take the blame, apologize, explain what happened and promise a fix — not an instant one, but a fix on the way. In the end, the narrative is going to go on with or without input from the owner, but in the blue example, the owner is taking the steering wheel into his own hands for at least part of the road trip. That initiative could save not just his franchise location, but the brand at large. Just ask Florian Huebner:

“Over the course of 2013 customers of Yi-Ko Holding’s restaurants increasingly left public online reviews about “broken and dirty furniture,” “sleeping and indifferent staff,” and “mice running around in the kitchen.” Per the nature of a franchise system, to the typical consumer it was unclear that these problems were limited to this individual franchisee. Consequently, the Burger King brand as a whole began to deteriorate and customers reduced their consumption across all locations, leading to revenue declines of up to 33% for some other franchisees.”

Positive news for small businesses working like mad to compete: You have more agility to put initiatives into quick action than the big brands do. Companies with 1,000 locations may let negative reviews go unanswered because they lack a clear policy or hierarchy for owner responses, but smaller enterprises can literally turn this around in a day. Just sit down at the nearest computer, claim your review profiles, and jump into the story with the goal of hearing, impressing, and keeping every single customer you can.

Big brands: The challenge for you is larger, by dint of your size, but you’ve also likely got the infrastructure to make this task no problem. You just have to assign the right people to the job, with thoughtful guidelines for ensuring your brand is being represented in a winning way.

NAP and reviews: The 1–2 punch combo every local business must practice

When traveling salesman Duncan Hines first published his 1935 review guide Adventures in Good Eating, he was pioneering what we think of today as local SEO. Here is my color-coded version of his review of the business that would one day become KFC. It should look strangely familiar to every one of you who has ever tackled citation management:

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No phone number on this “citation,” of course, but then again telephones were quite a luxury in 1935. Barring that element, this simple and historic review has the core earmarks of a modern local business listing. It has location data and review data; it’s the 1–2 punch combo every local business still needs to get right today. Without the NAP, the business can’t be found. Without the sentiment, the business gives little reason to be chosen.

Are you heading to a team meeting today? Preparing to chat with an incoming client? Make the winning combo as simple as possible, like this:

  1. We’ve got to manage our local business listings so that they’re accessible, accurate, and complete. We can automate much of this (check out Moz Local) so that we get found.
  2. We’ve got to breathe life into the listings so that they act as interactive advertisements, helping us get chosen. We can do this by earning reviews and responding to them. This is our company heartbeat — our story.

From Duncan Hines to the digital age, there may be nothing new under the sun in marketing, but when you spend year after year looking at the sadly neglected review portions of local business listings, you realize you may have something to teach that is new news to somebody. So go for it — communicate this stuff, and good luck at your next big meeting!

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