A business owner recently asked me how to go about building positive reviews in a way that would "optimize" their Google Maps listing. This is about as provocative a topic as it gets in the Local Search community, I know, but it's also an unavoidable subject worth addressing. Search marketers ponder the same "How To" question, if for nothing else to try and understand every aspect of local search ranking factors and translate this to practical advice for SMB's.
Google Places has become an essential tool in increasing popularity of a business on the Web to attract local consumers. It is a huge opportunity for local businesses to get exposure, but ranking in Google Places does not happen automatically - and building reviews takes time (any effort to improve ranking should be measured in months not weeks).
For every local search, Google does its best to display relevant businesses, favoring those its algorithm determines to be prominent (well-established) and well-liked in the area.
If Google made a habit of recommending local businesses that offered poor products and service, how long do you think people would continue using Google Maps? So Google has more confidence in "recommending" a local business if it has mostly positive reviews and ratings.
Google Places reviews have four primary signals that affect local search ranking:
- Volume of reviews/ratings
- Velocity of reviews/ratings
- Sentiment of reviews/ratings
- Keywords in reviews
The quantity of reviews needed to improve rankings depends on the business type and the number of reviews relative to local competitors. It's important to identify how many reviews competing listings have acquired and use this as the relative benchmark.
Amassing lots of reviews is great, but acquiring them all in bulk or too quickly is not - this will set off red flags. Steadily building quality reviews is ideal.
While most review building strategies focus on soliciting reviews from happy customers, a natural distribution of mostly positive and even some negative reviews is best. There are a number of signals Google relies on, and crawling review content and extracting sentiment analysis is one of them.
The quality of the written review is also important. While keywords in the review have been shown to help a listing rank, it's important that the description not appear spammy. Keyword stuffing in reviews is NOT good. But, the appearance of multiple reviews with consistent use of the right keywords, used sparingly, typically has a very positive impact on rankings for those particular keywords - especially long-tail keyword phrases.
Not good: General dentist Dr. Williams in Chicago, IL provides general dentistry and general dental care procedures, such as: Chicago general dentistry for children, general dentistry in Chicago for adults, and Chicago general dentist for seniors.
Good: Chalk up another great appointment with Dr. Williams in Chicago. He really cares about your teeth and takes the time to explain all procedures to make you feel comfortable. The entire staff is very friendly and prices are reasonable. Beyond general dentistry he also offers cosmetic dentistry like dental implants and natural looking filings. I highly recommend Dr. Williams!
To sum up Google's review policy: No fake reviews, no keyword-stuffed reviews, and no direct incentives for reviews. And apparently, according to Mike Blumenthal's blog, representatives of Google claim on-site review stations are permissible and even encouraged.
Additionally, other factors of influence include quantity, velocity and sentiment of reviews stemming from relevant third-party sites: IYPs, vertical/niche directories, and data aggregators, Facebook page likes, social media mentions on sites like Twitter, Foursquare check-ins, and Google+ shares. The entire local-social-mobile ecosystem is becoming increasingly more connected and continuing to play a bigger role in ranking.
Google's assessment of reviews also relies on the relative prominence of the person (account) posting the mention. A person with a history of quality reviews, on Hotpot for example, carries more weight.
The Anatomy of Stellar "Optimized" Reviews:
After five or more reviews, an average star rating with the total number of reviews appears on the search results page along with the listing:
It's common to see a boost in both ranking and conversion once five reviews are achieved and the average star rating has been activated - as long as the reviews are good!
Optimally, the person writing the review places the best descriptive text at the very beginning of the review as a concise summary statement. The summary can then be expanded upon in the rest of the review. Google routinely places select keywords from the review in bold.
Below is an example of how bold keyword phrases appear in the published review:
Google also offers review guidelines to share tips on how to write constructive reviews. Some of these tips include how to make the reviews informative and insightful, using real stories and not stuff that didn't actually happen, being nice even with negative reviews by making them constructive and not disrespectful, and finally writing them using proper grammar - avoiding excessive capitalization or punctuation.
Spammy Reviews Can do More Damage than Good:
What happens if business owners write their own (fake) reviews? The business can end up in Google purgatory!
Google employs a number of measures to prevent fake reviews including checking to see if reviews are being left by an email address tied to the business's domain or stemming from the same or similar IP address. If Google is suspicious of fake reviews or sees too many reviews all happening over a very short period of time, the listing could wind up suspended and perhaps even permanently blacklisted if the tactics are blatant enough.
Bottom line is, if you own a business you need to commit to an effective and long-term strategy in building online reviews. Instead of direct incentives, focus on encouraging happy customers at, or shortly after, the point of sale. From a local search marketing standpoint, this topic cannot be ignored. After all, Google Maps is, at its core, a recommendation engine.