The Growing Power of Online Reviews

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If you own a small business, how comfortable are you with web sites that allow people to leave reviews of your business online?

I worked as a cook in a few restaurants during my days in college. A couple of those establishments were well respected, in the middle of town, with customers who would return regularly, and served quality fare.

I started working at another restaurant, after it was recommended to me by a friend, and with the lure of a substantial raise. It was near a heavily trafficked interstate, and I’m not sure that many folks came back for a second meal – the menu and food served were on the downside of average, and the main source of customers were people traveling down that main highway. I left after three months, less than happy to be associated with the place.

The first two restaurants are still open, and still do a thriving business. Word of mouth has been good to them. The other restaurant must have run out of diners who hadn’t heard of it before and didn’t know to stay away; it’s been closed for a few years.

I wonder how long it would have stayed open in these days of local search and online reviews.

An interesting area of growth lately in local search for businesses has been the use of reviews to let searchers know more about the place they’ve found in a local search. I wrote about a process for aggregating reviews that Google filed a patent for, in June, in a post titled Innovating Product Reviews at Google.

A couple of high profile news articles looked at online recommendations and reviews in more detail this last weekend, and if you own a small business, the first one I list is highly recommended.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an excellent article on the power of internet reviews to effect small businesses on Sunday – Amateur reviews changing approach of small businesses. (via Guy Kawasaki)

The New York Times also covered online recommendations and reviews on Monday in Help for the Merchant in Navigating a Sea of Shopper Opinions registration required (via Greg Sterling )

Here are some review sites that seem to have a wide national coverage. A number of these include restaurants only, but others have a wider range. If you’re a business owner, how would you feel about customers posting reviews of your business in sites like these? Hopefully good, because people will post reviews whether you want them to or not.

The San Francisco Chronicle article talked about some businesses that looked at the feedback their businesses received in review sites and then made positive changes to their businesses because of that feedback – and now encourage customers to write more reviews about them. Do your customers discuss your business on one of these review sites?

I didn’t include smaller regional review sites in my list, and there are many of those. It’s easy to find them – just go to a place like Google Local, and look for businesses that are similar to yours in your area, and see where reviews about those sites are from. It’s not a bad way to find local directories either.

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15 thoughts on “The Growing Power of Online Reviews”

  1. Bill:

    I believe this will be extraordinarily important and will grow in impact over time. Having operated a small business for over 20 years, word of mouth has been one of our keys to continued success. It is absolutely critical.

    I only scanned some of your references. As an operator I am especially nervous about negative reviews on the web. I am also aware that competitors could plant the worst statements out there…and as we are highly dependant on the web these could be devastating.

    Our 20+ year history has simply emphasized the need to outperform and over service customers. It has generated incredible customer feedback, some positive print reviews and a huge number of referrals over the decades.

    To the extent these types of statements are highly visible on the web they will create enormous impact for all sorts of businesses in all sorts of environments.

    I’m gonna tread carefully…and work to utilize all the positive formats I can.


  2. Thanks, Dave and Mike.

    I agree about the power of anonymous user reviews to be harmful to a business. And their visibility in places like the major search engine local searches is fairly significant.

    I’ve been working on a followup post that addresses some of those issues, which I hope to post sometime this afternoon – at least one of the major search engines feels the same way about reviews, even though they seem to be placing significant value in them.


  3. One thing of note to me is that the impact of these reviews are proportionately more the smaller the market and thus the fewer the reviews.

    Likewise it is easier to manipulate them either positively or negatively.

    Google and Yahoo both seem to put significant value on these reviews in their local ranking. But neither of them seem to really be pushing the local information out as much so their impacts are still embrionic

  4. Good points.

    I’ve been wondering how much of an impact vertical creep would have on local search, with some local listings appearing at the top of organic searches.

    I haven’t tried to set up any coupons yet, and haven’t seen any in Google’s local listings. I would love to see some type of icon appearing next to a local listing, even in the local results inserted into organic search listings, which would tell people that coupons are available.

    If people don’t know that they exist, they aren’t going to keep their eyes open for them. If they do, they might start doing more drilling down through local results.

  5. Two comments

    1)Manipulation can help the business as well. Any business would be foolish to not attempt to garner positives reviews (even if they be family and friends)…obviously the more reviews there are the less impact this would have

    2)While the search engines seem to place value on the local search, they still only highlight the top three and require the user to drill down to get either more choices, more details or coupons. For many users drilling down is more than they are willing to do. From the businesses’ perspective this means if you are not in the top three you are pretty invisible and even if you are, it is unlikely that the user will drill down too far. It will be interesting to see if the users learn that there might be coupons there is that will change their behavior or if the search engines would need to bring more out front

  6. The online review and rating systems are not only helpful to consumers looking to buy, but they also provide an outlet and a voice to those who were not satisfied. Smart companies will take notice of both types of comments. Negative responses deserve attention because they could alert a company to potential consumer problems and they can adjust and address accordingly to avoid backlash.

  7. Hi Mary Ann,

    I think that is a very good point. Ideally businesses will pay attention to what consumers say and write about them so that they can respond to criticism, and use that feedback to improve the goods or service or information that they are offering. A really smart company will make it as easy as possible to get feedbaci – positive and negative – directly from their customers and potential customers, and will have thought about how to respond when negative criticisms show up online in a way that shows that they are responsive and concerned about the viewpoints of the people interested in what they offer.

  8. Hi- I just found this article. I am a marketing consultant for dental practices. What websites do you think are the most effective for getting customer (or patient) reviews indexed by Google? One of our goals with clients is to create raving fans. We need their happy patients to go online and post reviews. Sites like yelp, IMHO, are too labor intensive.

  9. Hi Chris,

    It looks like Google favors Yelp – rumors are running rampant today that Google is in talks to acquire the company. What I would suggest is to look at a good number of reviews for other dental practices sites, and see where Google seems to be taking those reviews from.

  10. Bill,
    Do you have any more information regarding this subject? On line reviews?
    I just started as a SEO Analysis for a company and have zero experiance in this. Level 0. I have a book called SEO,Bible. That is teaching me as I go along, and using constantly Google Anlytics and AdWords.Any other place I might be able to get help?
    Thank you for any information you might be able to provide or share,

  11. Hi Frank,

    I’ve written a few other posts about online ratings and reviews that focus upon patent filings from the search engines that describe different possible ways that search engines might handle online reviews. I’m not sure that there are any books involving SEO that really go very deeply into the subject.

    Here are some of my posts on the topic:

    Google Approach to Making Online Ratings Easier…
    Opinion Summaries in Google Maps Reviews
    How Google May Rate Raters
    Google’s New Review Search Option and Sentiment Analysis

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