The Evolution of Local Business Reviews

Evolution of Local Business Reviews

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Local business reviews have evolved drastically over the years. But has your review strategy changed to adapt?

In this session, local SEO expert, Mike Blumenthal, shows you how reviews have changed and what those changes mean for your business. You’ll learn:

• Which review platforms matter now
• How reviews actually influence customer decisions
• The impact of review gating
• How Google uses reviews to understand your business

You’ll also learn how businesses now use reviews to get strategic insight into internal processes and ways to improve their customer experience.


Mike Blumenthal: Business reviews are fascinating to me. Obviously, I’ve made an amazing career out of it, but even before that, I’ve often looked at them and recognized them as this amazing intersection of our society online. There’s consumers, government, businesses, and review sites….they all are stakeholders in this. I thought it would be interesting to look at the last few years in each of these categories to get a sense of where we are today. Step back from the technical day-to-day stuff, and think a little higher level so that we can provide more value in this context.

I’m going to look at past and current aspects of those four stakeholders to give you a sense of what I’ve perceived. Consumers are obviously a critical player in the market. If you look at this research from BrightLocal, where they have been tracking annually this question of, “Do consumers trust reviews as much as personal recommendations?” And as you can see, this was rising for many years, from 2010 to 2014. And it sort of dropped, leveled off. The data set isn’t really clear yet, but it certainly isn’t increasing anymore. Consumer trust level of reviews has leveled. If you look at the opposite inside of this equation, people who don’t trust reviews, that is showing a similar trend. The people who don’t trust reviews was declining, and it also leveled off.

This is easy to understand with all the noise we see in the press. It’s all about personal experiences, particularly with Amazon, but also to a lesser extent with Google, with the problem of fake reviews. It’s totally believable that trust has hit some level and it may decline further in the future.

I did some similar but different research. I asked consumers, a fairly large data set, and I’ve redone it every six, eight, 12 to 18 months over the past four or five years. I ask consumers whether after purchasing from the local business, how often do they leave reviews? And notice that from 2014 to 2017, the people who said they never leave reviews was declining pretty dramatically to the point where it went from 57% in 2014 to just over 30% never left reviews in 2017. You saw a similar sort of increase in the people who do leave reviews, those who have less than six or those that left more than six here both increased during those periods. Pretty dramatically as well.

I did this again a couple months ago, and we saw reversal of a long-term trend. We don’t have enough data to know whether this is an aberration of whether it’s a shift. But, we see that in 2019, consumers who never write reviews has jumped back up to levels closer to 2015.

A couple years ago, this is 2014, I did some research asking consumers when they search online for local businesses, how many review stars do you need to consider the business? I find it fascinating, particularly when you compare consumer and business attitudes about reviews. Every business thinks they have to have five stars. But, 85% of the consumers said four stars or less were enough for them to consider the business. So, the bulk of consumers are perfectly satisfied with something other than a five star review corpus.

In fact, recent research from a Womply noted that five star businesses actually have below average sales compared to those in the 3.5 to 4.5 range. Those that are the 3.5 to 4.5 earn more revenue, and those in the 4 to 4.5 earn 20% more than any of the other cohorts. I think that what you can surmise from these two bits of research is that consumers reward authenticity, which speaks against the small business attitude that I have to have five stars. In fact, it would appear that actually having less than five stars is optimal.

Eric Shanfelt: I’m assuming that should be for the four star, I know that it used to be that the four star or higher is where Google would filter out if you put like “best Chinese restaurants near me.” It would filter out with four stars.

It seems like 4 to 4.5 stars is really the sweet spot, like you said with your last bullet.

Mike Blumenthal: Yeah, if you’re going to approach this tactically, absolutely. I think what you want to say is, “How do I become a better business so that I earn more stars?”

But that’s a bigger conversation I’ll have a little later. The other thing is that one of the ways you can tell a spammer these days is by looking at these business listings. If they’re all five stars, you have to think twice about whether this business listing is real or not.

Business attitudes have also changed over the years, although some things never change. I did another fairly large scale survey. I asked consumers what percentage of businesses provide excellent service, and the most common answer for consumers was 55% do. When I asked that same questions of businesses, it was a much higher perception. Some things don’t change over time. I think to be in business, you have to be very confident. And to some extent, that confidence might blind you to certain realities about the quality of service you’re providing. I think that blind spot is something that businesses need to be aware of. Agencies also need to be aware of this when they’re talking to them, so they can help deal with reality.

One of the things I frequently see in communicating with businesses is when a business starts interacting with reviews. Often times, when I first meet them, they’ll say to me, “Oh, all my business comes from offline referrals.” It’s a very common thing. They’re actually in a state of denial because when I go look at the data, that doesn’t turn out to be true but they still think that.

The second that happens is because they haven’t been collecting reviews, there’s very few, they get a couple bad ones and they are pissed. They’re angry at the customer. They’re angry at Google. They’re angry at the world because somebody had the audacity to call them out. Then they start bargaining, either with Google, you’ll see it in the forums. This person that wasn’t even a customer of ours, they just came in. Google doesn’t care if they’re a customer or not, Google just says, “Look, they’ve interacted with your business. They have a right to review it.” Could be an unanswered phone call or it could be your door was locked five minutes before your closing time.

Bargaining is the next step the business often takes. They sort of throw their hands up, “Oh, I can’t deal with this.” And then finally, they move into some level of acceptance. It’s like the five stages of grief. I don’t mean to minimize the five stages of grief, but it’s often like that in small businesses where they feel this sense of, “All right, I’ve got to finally accept this reality.”

But acceptance means many different things in this world of businesses. Some businesses just go out and start buying reviews. They’re like, “Oh, I can’t beat this system. I’m just going to go pay $5 a pop and get some more. Or I’m going to worse,” or maybe not worse, “Have my wife or my mother, or daughter, or employees write reviews.” In fact, you just saw the other day there was a cosmetic company the FTC caught having their employees write the reviews.

And then the next level of sophistication or a step up from that is where businesses say, “I got to get more reviews.” Often they’ll say, “I got to get more reviews at Google.” It’s a very sort of narrow view of the world of reviews. And finally, what I’ve seen is that in the more sophisticated businesses, the ones that realize that a bad review meant that they didn’t do something right, whatever it is. Those folks typically start getting into the idea that reviews allow them to measure and explore ongoing improvements. They recognize that through the reviews, their consumers are collaborating on telling the business brand’s story. I think it’s important to note that in this world of everybody having a voice, the business no longer can tell their brand story by themselves. Used to be you put up a new fresh coat of paint on your marketing campaign, Wells Fargo would declare they’re wonderful, and then they’d go screw another three million people. It’s no longer that easy to do. I mean, you really have to realize that consumers, what they are saying about you is what other consumers believe.

So this acceptance can mean many things, and it’s my contention that you need to move through this hierarchy and get to the end to be really successful with reviews.

Eric Shanfelt: This is more what you were talking about, where your reviews are moving more from a tactical thing you have to do into a strategic thing, a strategic key part of the business?

Mike Blumenthal: Exactly. I think that they, in aggregate, become one of the most effective ways to improve your business and understand what people think about you. I would note, though, that businesses frequently regress. And I think the end of gating, a year ago April, was an interesting case. We ran Gather Up as a customer experience, a review monitoring and reputation company. When we ended gating, we had businesses calling us and canceling their subscriptions because they had to gate. We did do gating. It was an option within our system. We did it because businesses needed the comfort to make that decision and move into the space, but some of them never got rid of that sort of blankie and really got annoyed with us.

But I was curious, now that time had passed, what did it mean? I went into our system, looked at 10000 locations that were in our systems for the 12 months exactly prior to the end of gating, and we did this grand experiment. We shut off gating one day to the next. We were ready, we had all of our ducks in a row fortunately, and we shut it off one day the next very soon after Google said they didn’t like it. This is the view the 12 months before. Their Google rating was 4.66. 46746 reviews during that year prior. And then in the year after, no gating, exact same 10000 businesses, their review rating dropped at Google from 4.66 to 4.59, a fraction of a star.

Eric Shanfelt: Almost negligible.

Mike Blumenthal: Almost negligible, and given the vagaries of statistical analysis, I didn’t cleanse the data set, so it’s likely it’s the same number within striking range, statistically being the same number. So that was interesting.

What was more interesting was that the Google reviews went up by 68%. Some of that was because Facebook sort of screwed the pooch on reviews, but a lot of it was just because it was now easier to leave reviews on Google, and surprisingly, more people did, and it didn’t really impact the gating. I guess my point here is that the fear of reviews is worse than the reality of reviews.

Eric Shanfelt: All right. In essence, the gating, getting rid of the gating didn’t really have a negative effect?

Mike Blumenthal: Not on the star rating, but it appeared to positively influence the volume. I think that’s significant.

Eric Shanfelt: That is huge.

Mike Blumenthal: Government too has something to say in this arena, at least in New York State. They’re particularly aggressive, and over the last five years, there’s been three cases in New York State where the government went in and would fine businesses significantly. I had one who was actually a client at the time who was offering a $5 coupon if you left a review. It didn’t matter if it was positive or negative. He had a $10,000 fine just for the coupon, right? And he couldn’t afford to fight it.

Now, the federal government has not been quite so aggressive as say New York State. They publish all of their cases online, and review laws fall under the endorsement laws, which essentially state that if there’s going to be public proclamations about how good you are by reviewers, then they have to reflect reality, they can’t be done on a pay-to-play basis, there can’t be any incentives, can’t be done by people who have a conflict of interest.

Anyways, they have periodically stepped in for some endorsement. You can see for the first eight years I tracked, there were 10 endorsement cases against businesses. Subsequent four years, there’s 21, and then the four years most recent, 42. And like I noted earlier, there was a recent case where a cosmetic company was caught red-handed no question cheating on their reviews. The FTC stepped in. Although the punishment was fairly mild, they basically agreed not to misbehave again. There were no fines, unlike New York.

Eric Shanfelt: I think it’s important that what you said though is that this isn’t just a federal thing with FTC. A lot of state’s attorney general are also getting involved with this now, and those cases are beginning to pick up a lot more significance, even at the federal level.

Mike Blumenthal: Right, and similar laws exist in England, Australia and Canada. It behooves you not to violate these rules.

And then the final player stakeholder in this environment is the review platforms. I was chatting with David Mihm before I prepared this talk, and he happened to have the common review platforms from 2009 from his local ranking factors. These are the sort of general media platforms, not the verticalized ones, but the ones that were of general importance. You look at those, and while Super Pages and I suppose and Yellow Pages still have reviews, they’ve become essentially non-existent. And now we’re down in the generalized space to Google and Yelp, even Facebook having switched out from reviews to recommendations doesn’t seem obvious that they’re still in the review space, so… a big reduction in the number of review sites.

When you look at it into one vertical, at least in restaurants, you see a similar reduction. Google and Yelp, obviously, are in the space. But then TripAdvisor and OpenTable, and Zomato, which I think they bought Urban Spoon, they’re sort of again, half in the space.

But when you look at this list of who’s currently in the space, TripAdvisor and Yelp were around in 2006 when I did this original research. Google, OpenTable and Zomato did not exist then, and all these other ones went by the wayside.

So Yelp is an interesting case. They’re sort of last man standing in the review space. Obviously, with a lot of early emphasis on restaurants. But Yelp has always, as a strategy, wanted long form reviews by the few elites that they have engaged in their system. And this is an example review that I grabbed from Barbara Oliver. Now Barbara Oliver, a typical sale for her is an engagement ring, it’s $10000 or whatever, and this is, I just thought it was emblematic of what Yelp is doing.

Mike Blumenthal: So this Megan, right? She has 264 friends, and she’s written 256 reviews, and uploaded 206 photographs at Yelp, right?

Eric Shanfelt: A big Yelper.

Mike Blumenthal: A big Yelper. Get a life. And not only that, but she has friends, enough friends there that they actually find her reviews useful. Obviously she uploaded a photo, and again, this is for a store that sells expensive jewelry, and what does she write about? She writes a four paragraph review about a $3 battery that she got replaced.

Eric Shanfelt: With a photo of a bunch of chocolates.

Mike Blumenthal: Which Barbara gives away, free compliments of business. This is what Yelp has always wanted and this is what they have, right? They’ve really excluded most people from their review space. If you’re a newbie there, you’re not welcome, you have to have a certain number of reviews. If you write short-form reviews, you’re not welcome. Which I find interesting. And when I look at their traffic, they have to publish traffic results and they have to publish material threats because they’re a public company.

And they frequently notice that their biggest material threat to client acquisition is the fact is Google. They risk not getting as many customers coming in from Google. I don’t know if you’ve noticed any, but Yelp is not doing as well on search results as say TripAdvisor. Obviously Google has inserted themselves in that.

This is their traffic from June 2017. Which was the highest traffic level I could find. 185 million users. And this is their traffic from this last June when they filed, 172 million users. And this is pretty consistent, whatever that is, 7.5, 8%. 10% reduction in traffic. I mean, Yelp has reached peak traffic and they’re beyond it at this point. Their increase in mobile apps, which they nagged the bejesus out of people to sign onto, is not offset anywhere by the decline in mobile or web-based stuff. So Yelp is in a traffic decline.

That phrases a question for me because Yelp takes on such a big presence in business’s minds. And so I went to Google trends and I typed in a nonsensical comparison between the search phrase Yelp because we knew people were going to Google and searching for Yelp in some combination. And I compared to the search restaurants near me, which is a very small segment of the searches that Google gets locally. But what you see in this chart is the fact that Yelp searches at Google were going up until 2016, and starting around 2011 with the advent of mobile phones, searches for restaurants near me started increasing.

I found that pattern fascinating because it basically reflects the adaption of mobile technology, where Google, and the change in Google delivering more and more business profiles and “results and near me” searches. Now you don’t even need to say near me, just say restaurants and up pops a local pack.

I dug into this a little deeper, and I went in year by year. In 2013, Yelp was still predominant and much more frequently searched than restaurants near me. 2014, it doesn’t show up very well, but there’s a lessening of the blue in the state charts. You can see a few red bars on the right in terms of the states. 2015, a little more lightening in this area, a little more red, which means that the near me searches are starting to increase.

And then we start seeing this transition starting in 2016 where the mid central states are moving beyond Yelp searches and their more prominent searches are restaurants near me. 2017, almost all the midwest. 2018, the bulk of the Rockies and the mountain states. 2019, you basically see Illinois, New York, and a few of the western states, which has traditionally been Yelp’s territory. You can see this ongoing decline of users looking for Yelp and a commence or increase in users leveraging Google’s capability here.

Now search is hyper local. I went in and I dug out the state of Texas and did this same comparison, but this is over a five year period. And I thought it was fascinating that that little blue area in the middle is still Yelp, and that’s Austin, ad whereas the red is Google. One, it looks very much like the electoral graph, right? I mean, this is how people vote in Texas, right? Austin votes for democrats and everyone else for republicans, but there was another correlation that I thought was fascinating in this that both Donald Trump and Jeremy Stoppelman both could be pretty rude offensive people. I’m not sure that this is what this graph is saying, but it seemed like a correlation that was relevant to me.

Anyways, it’s very localized and obviously in your market, you’ve got to make this decision. If you’re in California, Yelp is still valuable, but most parts of the country, it is in declining value, and I think it’s being edged towards irrelevancy.

But I wanted to dig even deeper into this question-

Eric Shanfelt: Mike, I had a really interesting question come in on that chart. Could you go back to that chart from the previous year?

Interesting questions came in: this search that you’re doing on Google trends obviously reflects web searches, but does that necessarily reflect the fact of a decline in actual use of Yelp since most people are now actually using the Yelp app rather than going through Google to get to Yelp?

Mike Blumenthal: Here’s 2017. On the left is their app, 28 million. And you can see there’s 150 million using the web, so that’s not most. Most are using the web to access Yelp, 2017. In 2019, you have some increase in app use but nowhere near most, right? What you’re seeing is that yes, there’s been some uptick in app use at Yelp, but nowhere near offset their loss and still nowhere near their volume or web search, right?

Eric Shanfelt: Basically, you’re saying still it appears that the usage of Yelp versus the usage of Google to find restaurants has declined on the data that you can find?

Mike Blumenthal: Exactly, and app use is only 25% of their total traffic, which doesn’t bode well for them as a trend, right? In other words, they’re not building or able to build app use as fast as their web use is declining.

Then I dug into Gather Up data. I fortunately had a group of 250 restaurants that were in our system for a number of years, and we looked at month-by-month comparison of Facebook, Google, TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews. For every month from January ’15 through April of this year, and you can see that at the beginning, Yelp had 194 reviews for the month of January for this group and Google had 19. So Yelp was doing 10 X the number of reviews that Google was doing. At the end, Yelp had roughly the same number of reviews for this group. And Google during this same period of April 2019 had 10 X, 11 X the number of reviews, right?

When you look here, you can see this diverging during this early 2016 timeframe. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Mike Blumenthal: Then I look at financial services. This is a group of 10,000 businesses in the financial arena. Finances is very low empathy for reviews, in other words, much harder for them to get reviews, so I have to look at a bigger data set to get any significant data. But interestingly beating for them, Facebook was the leading review site for them, 208 at the beginning. You can see here’s that same April 2016 divergent. This is when Facebook seemed to throw in the rag on reviews and they ended with two times the number of reviews per these 10,000 locations per month.

Mike Blumenthal: When you go look at Yelp, even Yelp though in this industry was greater than Google at the time this survey started, right? Yelp was getting 2 X the number of reviews per location, per this cohort, per month at the beginning, and at the end, they were about the same. In other words, same volume, but Google was getting 36 times as many reviews. I guess you could say that Google is killing it, although you might want to modify to say Google is killing them. However you say it, certainly Google is getting the preponderance of reviews, and when you plot these as a percentage of total reviews each month, you can see this more dramatically. The influence that Google has had in terms of the relationship between their reviews and the total corpus of reviews has grown consistently over that time.

You mentioned that I sometimes consider myself a curmudgeon of local search. Dan is my curmudgeon in study. He’s sort of the person who has the best chance of following my boot steps because he says to me, “What about California restaurants? Prove it to me, prove it to me that even they are having trouble getting Yelp reviews.”

Mike Blumenthal: I dug into our data set and found a California-based food chain that’s a fast casual kind of business. Looked at the same data set, 169 reviews for I think it’s 50 or so restaurants from Yelp at the beginning whereas Google had zero, literally, in California for this same period. And we look at the end, Yelp is down in California in this group by some significant percentage and Google is up. The point where it inflected is a year late, almost a year later, not quite. And the point where Google starts passing Yelp is even later. While there’s still blue in my original map, this would indicate to me that even California is going towards Google, and if we look at this next year, we’ll see even more of it.

Eric Shanfelt: I like that data. Not that the Google Trends wasn’t relevant, but this is hard data on reviews actually being collected over time on platforms for a larger food chain. So I think it’s actively didactically showing the point you’re trying to make is that the influence of Google reviews versus Yelp reviews has shifted significantly over the past few years.

Mike Blumenthal: Correct, and Google has done a number of things to make that happen. One of those was, and this matches up with the inflection points in those charts, is that when they finally got rid of the burden of Google+, and opened up reviews with the Gmail, that was one of the main factors that facilitated reviews on Google. There’s other things, I mean they obviously allow us to generate Google review links at scale. It’s not against their rules for enterprises to ask for reviews. It’s not against the rules for agencies to ask for reviews on behalf of them. All of those are against the rules with Yelp, so Yelp is in many ways creating their own limitations here.

Google approaches reviews differently. Diametrically, it posts the way Yelp does, right? Yelp views reviews as a singular long form piece of information that you want to read. Now, I’m sorry, I don’t want to read a four paragraph thing about batteries. But that’s Yelp’s approach, that’s what they’ve decided to go with. Google on the other hand looks at reviews sort in aggregate. And starting at around the same time frame, they started elevating every page on a brand search about a business that had stars in it, giving those pages a little bump in the search results.

If you pay attention, you can see this brand story in aggregate in a very quick view. I think that’s sort of one strategy that Google has used to leverage all this data that they grabbed from out of the web.

They don’t limit themselves to just Google reviews. I read this patent, which was first written up by Bill [inaudible 00:30:03], and then written up subsequently by me at the Gather Up blog. If you take a look at this patent that was published in 2018, it’s fascinating. User reviews may be gathering from blogs, social network postings. Emails, God, who believes that they were snooping on their emails? Articles written for websites, printed publications, postings made to a user review section of an online vendor or marketplace. They look everywhere for reviews. Google doesn’t limit themselves. They have such good artificial intelligence, special learning of language and analysis, they can, and we’ve seen this as far back as 2010. But they can parse reviews and send them out from almost any place, and they do. This is in their patent.

In addition, I found this was fascinating that they use these reviews, not like count them and give you a score and you rank higher because there’s more. I mean, that’s a small element to the ranking you know. But more interesting to me is that they look at the frequency of text in reviews, the categories, the entities, the nouns, the adjectives, they count each of these up, they determine a score, and that information may become strongly associated with a particular entity so that they essentially expand the reach of the listing by increasing the phrases upon which it might show. It’s a totally different approach, and because they have so much data, they can do this. It’s just a different way of looking at reviews.

There’s another example where if you go to Google and you start looking for a Q&A, and you start typing in a question, Google will start surfacing review content and answer to that question, again, using their natural language processing to perhaps answer your question right then and there. Again, pointing out sort of how Google looks at reviews differently.

And then finally, this was recently rolled out on the desktop. It had been rolled out on mobile for a number of months where they are summarizing this. Again Barbara Oliver, it’s really that high level concepts that are associated that people can find so people can just click in and see all the ones about engagement rings, or see the ones about her being a gemologist. They’re looking at reviews to guide people just beyond the singular review.

In terms of new things Google is doing, most of you are familiar with the local answer box when you type in a business name plus word “reviews.” Google shows reviews from around the web, but they also show reviews sort of wrapping, even a query about a business’s hours, right? Your business, somebody could look up your hours, and if your reviews are not up to that 4.0 level, somebody could be impacted in terms of whether they call you. Or where they look up their hours, phone number, or services, when people do a direct query on those things, Google is providing the answer box, but the answer box on mobile is wrapped in review content, which I find fascinating. It just shows you how far Google is pushing this idea of reputation around your business profile

Eric Shanfelt: I think it also is emphasizing your point. You’re saying, “Hey, you’re no longer running your own brand. You have to manage your brand in conjunction with your customers.”

Mike Blumenthal: Yes, and to a lesser extent with Google, but yes, absolutely. That brings us to this. What kind of strategies and tactics can you put in place? And I think the big picture is framed by that question that you really need to realize that the only way to successfully navigate that question long haul about curtailing your brand story is by being really good.

Obviously, there’s some tactical things you want to think about in terms of consumers and the government. I really think that the loss of consumer trust needs to be respected and you need to be transparent when you use reviews. I think the end of gating was a good thing, and I think that you should not gate on your own website when you’re showing reviews, testimonials, things like that. You should show them all. I think that even you might go so far as to create and abide by your own reviews terms of service that show why a review might not show, and I think you should make that link obvious. I think that transparency is going to be the only way to keep consumers from trusting reviews less.

From the FTC’s point of view, avoiding incentives, avoiding buy reviews or using employees to get them. There is a requirement in the FTC that if you use ratings on your website in your marketing, they should reflect the actual averages of your real reviews. Trying to inflate them, I think one is counterproductive in terms of trust for the consumers. It’s obviously against the law. But I think we saw earlier, it’s unnecessary. I think people reward authenticity.

And even if you’re outsourcing to a third party, your business is still liable. If you have an agency doing this for you and they do some of this stuff even unbeknownst to you, you are liable.

Eric Shanfelt: Good question just came in here Mike on that. It said, “So, would you actually encourage businesses to allow one star reviews of people who are unhappy with the business to show up on their own website?”

Mike Blumenthal: I do. If you go to Gather Up, you’ll find ours. I do. I think that people, from my point of view, it helps the right buyers buy your product, to understand when it doesn’t work, and who it doesn’t work for. I mean, I don’t want the wrong buyer coming, I want the right buyer coming. And the people that weren’t happy, weren’t happy for a reason because we fucked up. And or we didn’t have a product that met their needs, or whatever it was. I don’t see any reason with not sharing that.

It’s a little hard, it’s a little painful. It’s a little discomforting.

Eric Shanfelt: I think it’s a real scary proposition for most businesses, but it sounds like what you’re saying is in the end, it pays off.

Mike Blumenthal: It does pay off. I mean, obviously you don’t want misogyny, sexism, racism, violence, threats, and advertisements for competitors and the links, and all that stuff. So yeah.

Eric Shanfelt: Clear out all the junk.

Mike Blumenthal: Clear out all the junk. You write a terms of service, and you want people that have actually done business with you. You don’t want the person who got here when your employee was being rushed to the hospital and you had to close the doors writing a review about you. The requirement is they do business with you. That’s a legitimate terms of service. You want fair terms of service, you want to be transparent about it, and you want to publish them all.

Which raises the question of where, when, and how do you promote your reviews? Where should you be asking? My perception is that Yelp is fading in importance. Obviously they really restrict how much you can ask there. You can get that little red badge of shame if you ask, then you have to be really subtle about asking there. But it really is much as relevant and at least stop worrying about Yelp, right? I mean, don’t fret about it. It’s like here’s what I say to Jeremy Stoppelman. That was a visual, for those of you who are listening, it wasn’t very polite.

Don’t worry about Yelp is really one way to look at it. And then, you want to also think in terms of the verticals that could help with your branding. You don’t need to spend a lot of time focusing on this, but Barbara Oliver here has been working on her reviews that show on Google for 10 years. This is not a one and done, or this month, or next month, or the month after. It’s a long-term project.

Over the next five years, you can get a couple reviews at these vertical sites. You don’t need a lot. You just need enough that it tells a consistent brand story, right? Obviously if your brand story in her case is 4.9 and 5, she has to be doubly careful that the Yelp story is consistent with that because she’s not going to be believed out of the gate, and she really has to be that good, and fortunately she is. I mean, it’s like lucky to have her as a customer.

Getting 10% of all your customers to leave a review with Google is a real stretch goal. I mean it’s hard. It’s not easy. It takes work. But they are much more willing to give you direct feedback.

What we find is if you ask for direct feedback and a Google review, you may get a little bit less than 10%. But in aggregate, you get much more, much, much, much more information. Like Google, I see that information as having huge strategic value

Review sites, Google, Yelp, Facebook to some extent, but I see Yelp providing less importance. Facebook is very situational. You want to assess because Facebook is no longer showing which snippets either in the Google search results, so if you’re very active on Facebook, that might provide some benefit, but I would think about it.

Eric Shanfelt: This is good. I definitely agree that certainly in relevance, Google is certainly becoming more and more prominent. Yelp is fading in some circumstances. But it’s not just Yelp itself. I mean, Yelp is also like syndicating reviews to Bing to Apple Maps, to Apple Siri, to Amazon Alexa. When sharing those other syndications, does that help change the view at all? Or do you think nope, that still doesn’t really matter?

Mike Blumenthal: I think you have to continue to monitor. You have to be very careful about how you solicit there because if you’re not, you will end up with the red badge of shame and you’ll be reduced in rank. Given those two facts, you have to approach Yelp as still potentially one of the things you need to think about and monitor and respond to, but like I said, I think it needs to drop in importance in your toolkit.

Eric Shanfelt: Got it. Yelp may still have validity with reviews, but even Yelp’s own policies make it something that businesses and agencies serving those businesses, they can’t really focus a lot of time, attention, and effort on it, otherwise Yelp will spank them.

Mike Blumenthal: And be sure that in your market it’s still relevant. In the Midwest, like here, I consider myself, even though it’s western New York, it’s Midwest, people don’t use Yelp. It’s just not relevant as a resource. I think though in this context, I see first-party reviews as very valuable, and I see vertical sites as valuable. And the first-party reviews, we’ll get into this. But so, this brings us to the point about thinking about reviews strategically as opposed to just tactically.

There’s a million things you can do with review content that I think is amazing. Will Reynolds wrote this blog post about writing better ad copy by taking a review corpus and driving it through one of the many online statistical end gram tools that will essentially analyze the frequency of phrases and give you their top phrases so you can see how people are writing about you, and then using those to give back to the consumer in the form of reviews.

Phil Rozek wrote a really good one on using them for keyword planning because a lot of times businesses forget how their consumers talk, and reading reviews, and reading competitors’ reviews can help you better understand that language, so using them in that context.

This is a research I did around insurance agents. I looked at the complaints in 700 insurance agents. And insurance is kind of an interesting business because an agent in a local market doesn’t control all the variables of quality. Pricing is set by the national company. The settlements are done by the national company. And cost pricing increases, for example, with the biggest complaint.

Well, if I were an insurance agent, I took all of this data, I categorized them in a spreadsheet, and went through, and added them all up to see what the complaints were. Cost price increase is the biggest complaint. Then as an insurance agent, the way I deal with that, or should deal with it is three months, you know a price increase is coming, three months before renewal, you’ll reach out. So you can use this data to mitigate these pain points for your customers, and this was done manually.

I think too that content is one of the hardest things to do on a small business website. Whether you’re an agency or a small business, and to me, the review content from your customers in the form of first-party reviews is just joyous content. And it provides a basis, particularly with some online, but a basis for a long-tail strategy. On the engagement ring page, you can have not just social proof, but you can have the actual words of the people who actually bought engagement rings from you. And so I just see that as solving a huge pain point in the world of business websites.

Eric Shanfelt: Like you said, that content is going to make this page richer so that impacts not just the local business results, but in the organic search results, this page has a better possibility of appearing.

Mike Blumenthal: Exactly. And it stays fresh; it’s always being updated because your customers are doing it for you. I mean, why let Google have all the fun of user-generated content, right?

Eric Shanfelt: That’s right.

Mike Blumenthal: I think that user-generated content is great as long as you have a system to automate it, and it just happens, cool.

And then finally, we’re seeing the development, like we just recently rolled this out in beta, but we can now go into a corpus of reviews, and we can say, “Show me all the two, three and four star reviews, and plot those along this graph, and show me what things people are happy about in those reviews and what things were they unhappy about.”

Even if you have a four star review, there may still be some sentiment in there that you could work on to improvement. And so, the tools to improve your business are coming out and are readily available these days, whether you do it manually like I did in that previous research, or you do automatically by someone else. Being able to go into all your three and four star reviews and say, “Gee, here’s what I got to do to get my threes to fours, or what I got to do to get my twos to threes, or I can see that my staff is doing great but I may have a bad employee, or my mobile ordering is not as up to step.” Whatever. It’s just an incredible way of understanding and moving on this tactical pathway. I see getting reviews as this sort of tactical view that I mentioned earlier on.

I see responding to reviews is the next level of that tactic. We’re seeing a lot of evidence, one, Google, GatherUp, and many other review sites sending notes back to the customers that you’ve responded. So it’s a customer touchpoint. Two, we see there’s a number of pieces of research out there that you get roughly a half point higher review rating score for responding to reviews. People are less likely to grump publicly if they know you’re watching.

We also saw recently from research that indicated that review responses lead to higher income as well. Review responses is the next sort of obvious point to engage with. It’s difficult, and sometimes beyond the reach of some small businesses. But I think it’s something you want to think about, particularly in higher value added worlds like Barbara Oliver, like home construction.

But then you want to think about using these reviews for marketing and social proof on your website. You want to think about them for your ad words and keywords and your content strategy. Those are all moving in this strategic direction, but I think most importantly, we alluded to this earlier, is that the only way to succeed in this over the next five years is to understand that you do not any longer have control over your own brand, and it’s your customers that are defining it, and the only way to consistently define that at the level that needs to be defined is by really using these tools to improve your business.

And so this whole business to the right is where I think people need to be thinking about reviews as they move forward. And it’s also, if you’re an agency, this is where the real value add is. I mean, everybody can automate the getting of reviews or the asking for reviews. But as an agency, I think you need to be thinking about these because then you can moving out of the commodity market into the role of business [inaudible 00:47:38].I know you and I have talked about this that agencies need to be more than just a tactical partner to a business these days.

Eric Shanfelt: Mike, one of the things that I think is interesting here, I think that you were talking about the sentiment analysis and being able to use reviews to improve the customer experience, improve your business, I think it’s very interesting. I do think that a lot of that has already been happening, that the customer sentiment has already been out there, and the word of mouth has already been going on. But a lot of businesses haven’t had any visibility into that sentiment.

With the advent of reviews and then systems like this that do this sentiment analysis, this is always been happening, but now, you actually have a window into what your customers really perceive your business to be that’s unbiased.

Mike Blumenthal: If it isn’t unbiased, it’s at least what other people are seeing. It may not be totally unbiased.

Eric Shanfelt: Good point.

Mike Blumenthal: But it’s what the consuming public sees because Google is taking such a dominant role, they’re highlighting all of these on their brand search, so this is what Google is bringing into the mix. Regardless of whether it’s unbiased or not, it’s what the consumers are saying and seeing, and so in that sense, you have to accept that reality.

There’s a saying in Norway that there is no bad weather, there’s only bad clothing. In the sense, Google is the weather, we can’t change it, but we can dress differently. And I think that’s really the moral of this tale that we have to put on better clothes and handle it differently.

Eric Shanfelt: I heard the same expression in Ukraine.

Mike Blumenthal: Oh, okay. Well, maybe it’s all of course. So that’s the formal part of my presentation. I am open to questions.

Q1: Should businesses respond to reviews?

Eric Shanfelt: Yeah, I got a couple of questions that came through. And I think you may have already elaborated on this, but one person asked could you please ask about review responses? Is it still something you recommend businesses do, both with positive and negative reviews?

Mike Blumenthal: If obviously there’s an issue of time and value in relation to the responses. In a consumer survey I did about review responses, even in positive reviews, 30% of the consumers said they would like a response even if it was positive because they took the time to leave a review, right? So a fairly big percentage of people want you to respond.

Secondly, it’s a consumer touchpoint. Google, Gather Up, all these other will now send out notices to the customers that you have responded, so I can see that as beneficial. It isn’t always easy, so if you have to triage, I would go in the following order. I would deal with the negatives first, writing the response for the prospect because you’ve probably already lost that customer trying to engage them in a solution and show that you’re reasonable and you’re empathetic. People understand that you’re not perfect. The best you can do is try to own up to that. I would deal with those first.

I would deal with the ones where you could respond by increasing people’s understanding of your business second, and then if you have time, like with GatherUp, I am working to respond to every review that we get, and the reason I’m doing that is I want to learn how to not be a glad hander in review responses. I don’t want to just want to say, “Thank you for that great review.” It’s like gag me with a spoon, right? I want to personalize my responses, and I’m doing it with the idea that I will be able to develop a tool that recommends to review responders some suggestions for answering. I am doing it with a very ulterior motive, but I think that you can, and I’ve learned that you can, and what I used for tactic is personally I address the person by name, I take the last thing they said, I give it back to them in some form, and then thank them. And so by doing that in that structure, you can answer every review without seeming quite so robotic.

Q2: Are you using non-templated responses to make a tool for templated responses?

Mike Blumenthal: Yeah, so I mean I think they’re asking about my idea of trying to create something like Gmail, which suggests answers. We’re going to be taking, at some point, my corpus of responses and other people who we think done a good job with responses and trying to retrain a sentiment analysis, word analysis, machine language program to try to understand how you might be able to put these pieces together to create a non-standard response. The answer is yes, I think is our goal.

Q3: Do you think replying to reviews also applies to other directories like Yelp and vertical directories?

Mike Blumenthal: You’re going to get a lot less reviews there, but if somebody took the time to leave a review, I guess I believe you should respond. If they gave you a direct compliment or sent you a letter, you’d probably respond. Why should this be any different? And I see it even particularly more important on your own first-party reviews because that’s your house. It’s like, “Welcome into my house.” Somebody’s going to come in and say hi. You’re not going to ignore them. I just see it as a social courtesy. But again, there may be a need for triage because you have to run a business, and so it just sort of depends in a higher value world of selling houses than you should be able to. In a lower value sale, it may be harder, but higher volume, maybe harder. But you have to find some balance that works for you.

It doesn’t appear that you have to respond to all reviews. I mean, I don’t respond to ratings. What’s there to say? The rating’s the rating. And then if the review is very short, I might not respond to it. There was some ways to not have to respond to reviews, and the recent research seems to indicate you’re not harmed by not responding to 25% of them other than whatever that customer might feel or not feel personally.

Q4: Are Facebook reviews still relevant?

Eric Shanfelt: Got it. Would you consider Facebook reviews to still be relevant? Is it worthwhile to even focus effort on these reviews or should efforts be more targeted toward Google and first-party only?

Mike Blumenthal: Yeah. I see them as declining relevance, and, like I said, I think they should focus on Google, first-party, and then put a secondary focus on whatever is going to show up on your brand search reviews from around the web, right?

Let’s say you already have 50 reviews at Facebook of the old review types, right? You’re going to get stars, those are going to show up in the business profile knowledge crap. If you can get two others in there like Barbara did with Wedding Wire and The Knot, you get three, and it starts telling a very compelling story. I think you want to put in a little bit of effort, doesn’t take a lot, into some of these other sites, and the way you find them are look at the first two pages of your brand search, look at the stuff on page two or even page one that could have reviews that don’t, and try to get a couple of reviews there over the next couple years. Again, I don’t see it as a burning issue, but I do see it as something you should periodically address.

Q5 What are first-party reviews?

Eric Shanfelt: Makes sense. Mike asks what do you mean by first-party reviews?

Mike Blumenthal: First-party reviews meaning they’re giving it to you directly as opposed to Google. Like the way GatherUp works, we have multiple modes. One, you just give it directly to Google, or two, you have a choice who you give it to, or three, we have a flow that asks for first-party reviews, direct reviews, and then takes [inaudible 00:55:56]reviews. And what we see is in adding that step does decrease the Google reviews somewhat, but it so dramatically increases the first-party content that from where I sit, it doesn’t matter. But it would also make it easy to switch, so you switch.

First-party is just those that are coming directly to you. Third-party going to Google, Yelp, Facebook.

Eric Shanfelt: Right, yeah. The reviews you collect and publish on your own website are first-party. Google, Yelp, Facebook, vertical sites, those are third-party reviews.

Q6: Is it okay for me to copy a Google review and paste it on my website?

Mike Blumenthal: Are you asking me the legal question or are you asking me the ethical question?

Yeah, it’s complicated legal area. Consumers at Google own the Copyright to the Google review, so it is some minor violation of Copyright law if that consumer were to come after you, but there’s no real harm done typically. I wouldn’t do it if I were in a HIPPA controlled industry.

Eric Shanfelt: Right.

Mike Blumenthal: I would also though, if you’re going to do, the FTC says you need to reflect your actual averages, so if you claim you’re a five star business using Google reviews, not a five star business, really concrete proof for them that you’re violating that rule, so I would comply with that rule.

Consuming are so willing to give you that first-party. I don’t think it’s necessary to post the Google reviews on your site, but I don’t see any harm in it either because Google’s not going to sue you.

Q7: For a small local business, do you recommend a certain frequency of getting new reviews? And can you get too many all at once? Would it raise a red flag at Google?

Mike Blumenthal: The volume issue is not an issue at Google. I mean, there are reasons why reviews flow in sometimes greater than others. I think that consumers expect to see reviews within the last few months. You don’t want them to get stale, so I think there’s that. I don’t think there’s a right number. I think it’s going to be dependent on how you ask and on your product. Some products are easier to talk about online than others, like people really want to brag about the jewelry they bought at Barbara. They don’t want to brag about the fact they just bought homeowners insurance, but some percentage of insurance purchasers insurances will. It’s going to be really dependent on that.

I think that the best strategy is to not worry about it. Just setup a system where it happens all the time automatically, regularly, so your staff are asking. And the best we find is a personal ask plus a follow-up, either an email or SMS, that’s going to give you the highest yield. Whatever that yield is, just go with it. This is a long-term plan. For me, like I said, Barbara’s been doing this for 10 years. It’s a long time. It’s not something that you’re going to do overnight. So just build it and bake it into your business processes so it’s least amount of pain for you and the customer. You can optimize it, but don’t stress over the volume.


Mike Blumenthal
Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp and helps oversee its research, industry insight and agency offering. Mike has long been regarded as the foremost curmudgeon in local search and Google Maps, earning the nickname “Professor Maps”. Mike also co-founded Local University, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at GatherUp, his blog, Streetfight and does a twice a week LocalU podcast about Local marketing.