Customer Reviews & Google’s Local Business Listings

By Geoff Agnew
June 2, 2010
HospitalitySEO

Google’s Business Listings is a popular tool that helps consumers find local businesses. For businesses in certain industries, a favourable ranking in the LBL will go a long way in driving qualified traffic to your website. In this article, we discuss how the LBL works and how customer reviews effect ranking within the system.

More people use search engines to find local information than any other media. Gone are the days of thumbing through a 4lb block of dead trees to find a plumber. You go to Google (Yahoo, Bing, whatever butters your biscuit), plug in “Plumber, Seattle” and out comes a handy list of businesses to satisfy your needs.

Thankfully this new technology offers business owners meaningful control over their marketing efforts – provided they’re cognizant of its particularities. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on Google’s Local Business Listings (LBL). There are a couple other search engines deserving of attention, but with 85% market share (as of Jan 2010) it makes sense to target Google and its search products.

Google’s Local Business Listing is a location based search tool that helps users find local businesses. The LBL appears in both regular searches (above the organic results) and searches executed through Google Maps. Google offers business owners the ability to fully customize their business listing, meaning owners can provide as much (or as little) information as they want. At its core the ideal business profile is a collection of information provided by the owner (e.g. location, hours of operation, accepted methods of payment, photographs) supplemented by data gathered from various external sources (Trip Advisor, Zagat, The Yellow Pages or other 3rd party providers).

In highly competitive markets it’s critical owners show initiative in forming a comprehensive business profile. Those left unsupervised are destined to suffer lost sales as other, more attentive business rise to the top of local business keyword searches.

Google deliberately keeps the details of their ranking algorithm confidential to ensure a fair and balanced raking system. As a result, there’s little factual evidence available on how to improve your LBL ranking. That said, there are some simple guidelines one can follow in hopes of improving (or maintaining) a high LBL ranking.

Google ranks business listings based on the following criteria:

  • relevance to the search terms entered
  • geographic distance
  • the amount of information provided in the business profile
  • volume/flow of customer reviews
  • where the review came from
Where do customer reviews factor in the equation?

There is no doubt that customer reviews improve ranking. However it’s important to acknowledge that there isn’t a “magic bullet” in creating a high performance LBL profile.

Let’s say we’re baking a batch of chocolate chip muffins. While the chocolate chips are (arguably) the most coveted ingredient, if we overlook the inclusion of baking powder or eggs – the muffins will certainly not taste (perform) as well as they otherwise would have.

Google LBL works in a similar way.

An informative owner-supplied profile won’t necessarily shoot to the top of the listings. Nor will a couple of dozen reviews guarantee success. There’s a myriad of factors working in concert that contribute to a positive LBL ranking. As a business owner the best course of action is to embrace a holistic approach. Nurture each and every component and your listing will be in better condition to compete for top slot.

Volume

The volume of customer reviews has substantial effect in determining where your business appears in the LBL. Observation alone suggests that businesses with more customer reviews rise to the top. Obviously this isn’t a guarantee, as you will often find listings with fewer reviews ranked higher than those with more.

Others contend that volume alone isn’t the most critical factor, but the consistency of flow (how steady is the stream of reviews – the more consistent the better) that matters most. Either way, obtaining reviews is a great step towards improving your LBL weighting.

Point of origin

There are two types of reviews in Google Local Business Listings:

  • Reviews left directly on your Google business profile
  • Those that have been supplied by a third party vendor

Google assigns higher priority to those left on your profile than those from external sources. Reviews left by customers with robust Google account profiles have been identified as the “holy grail” of customer reviews. When assigning value to those from 3rd party vendors, Google seems to have its favorites. Of course, the favorites aren’t uniform the world over as they account for geographic proclivities.

Location can play a large part in deciding which 3rd party sites receive the greatest weighting. With that in mind, we recommend businesses owners research sites claiming authority in their region, and focus on getting reviews on each respective site.

In the realm of hospitality it’s safe to say that tripadvisor.com is the overwhelming voice of authority, with a variety of lesser-known review sites making up the difference.

Quality of reviews

Naturally one might assume the more positive rating a business receives, the higher its weighting.

Wrong.

According to Google engineers the nature of customer reviews have no effect on ranking. A hotel with 50 mediocre reviews will likely surpass a hotel with 2 excellent reviews in position. Obviously this isn’t a numbers game alone. Reviews, after all, are there to inform people. A business with fewer reviews may not rank as well as competitors that have more – but positive reviews encourage click throughs and further investigation.

Beyond that, searchers are given the ability to filter based on rating quality. The filter function rewards businesses that have earned positive ratings regardless of quantity.

How to encourage customer reviews

So how to encourage customer reviews? Most experts will tell you to do it the old fashioned way: by providing good service, and making the guests’ experience more memorable. Sometimes this is a smile, a free desert, or a complimentary upgrade.

Pushing users to post favorable hotel reviews negatively affects the quality of user review sites. It also runs counter to the spirit and objective of social media: it’s meant to be authentic. Therefore it’s strongly discouraged and heavily penalized when detected. It’s quite an arduous task to dig yourself out of banishment or penalty – so don’t do it.

However be cognizant of the difference between a “nudge” (passive) and “push” (aggressive). We’re big fans of the ideas presented in Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge, as it provides many lessons in the context of usability and marketing. It also has some application here.

In a nutshell, the default should always nurture conditions that encourage the favored or desired outcome. You can assume that leaving a (passively dictated) card suggesting a review in the room of your guests will lead to more reviews. Taking this one step further, leaving them only in the company of guests who received an upgrade or a free meal will lead to more positive reviews.

Your current default is probably to do nothing. You are aware of your goal, so change your defaults accordingly.

Competition is fierce out there, and some go the length of posting bad reviews to their competitors’ page. Some even lavish praise upon their competitors with the goal of triggering mechanisms that detect self-promotion (thereby leading to penalties). However there are a number of very sophisticated methods of detecting such tactics by analyzing user behavior, language, and IP addresses.

However bad reviews happen, and it’s important that you have a good response strategy. In fact sites like TripAdvisor make it clear that the response to a negative review influences the guests buying decision as much as the negative review itself. This tells you that a good response strategy goes far in countering the negative perceptions created by bad reviews – at least for sites that allow responses.

For more information about responding to negative reviews, see our article Social Media and the Hospitality Industry.

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