Understanding the interplay of SEO and a 5-star reputation

Is your online reputation fully optimized? Online reviews are a fundamental part of local search. That’s because 97 percent of consumers read online reviews for businesses, and 85 percent report that they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, BrightLocal’s 2017 Local Consumer Review Survey found.

It’s not a matter of if your business will get reviews, but when. Poor reviews can sink even the strongest businesses. Here’s a guide to understanding the interplay between reviews, local search and earning (or keeping) a five-star reputation.

How reviews influence local search

Online reviews are not only influencing consumers, they’re also influencing search engine results. According to this year’s Moz Local Ranking Factors Survey, local search experts believe that review signals (in terms of the quantity, velocity, diversity and so on) are estimated to determine about 13 percent of the local pack rankings and 7 percent of the local organic rankings in Google.

The three pillars to local search are relevance, proximity and authority. How can reviews influence these pillars? By adding content and context.

Unlike local business websites, reviews are made up entirely of user-generated content. The content provides unbiased details and additional keywords to associate with the business in question, which contributes to relevance. The reviews provide Google with context as to which businesses merit the greatest visibility and which deserve to be buried. Google also looks to reviewers for confirmation that the local business location and details are accurate, thus improving proximity.

While there’s no denying the power of links in SEO, strong reputations with reviewers can also convey authority to search engines. It’s easy for businesses to focus on the negatives with online reviews. But they’re also helping businesses rank well on Google and pursue their target audience.

Controlling business information

Knowledge is power for Google. It aggregates information from review sites in order to improve search results. But how does Google make sure that this information is accurate?

Business information is used for two types of search: organic and local. On the organic side, Google pulls information from your website and reviews from sites like Facebook, Yelp and industry-specific sites. Google also pulls from Wikipedia and Wikidata. You should monitor all of these sources to make sure they are accurate and up to date.

The local side works differently. They use Google My Business to verify things like business category, hours, photos and general information. Business owners can control this flow of information by logging into the portal and making updates.

However, Google takes it a step further. They use primary data suppliers (Acxiom, Localeze, Infogroup and Factual) to verify business information. Google also has a second tier of data providers for local search, which includes directories and review sites like Facebook, YP.com and Yelp.

Reviews have the power to override business information on Google. For instance, let’s say you don’t list your business hours anywhere online. If a highly trusted Yelp reviewer reports that your business is closed on Sundays, then it’s possible that Google will trust their data and update your hours.

Google may give review sites a lot of power, but business owners can still control their own narrative. Tools like Google My Business and Yelp’s free Business Owner account allow you to make changes to your listings. Moz Local is also a powerful tool — you can create a business listing to be distributed across the local search ecosystem, and Moz will submit your data across all the sources and allow you to make changes to any incorrect data that pops up on the web.

Google’s Knowledge Panel

It’s easier than ever to access online reviews. You don’t even have to go to review sites to see your business’s reputation. They’re now being integrated into local search.

Google’s Knowledge Panel showcases reviews from Google, Facebook and other industry-related sites. The Knowledge Panel is an instrumental tool for users, especially on mobile platforms. It helps them research a business, get key information and take action without even clicking on their website.

Let’s say someone is doing a search for “Infusion Coffee” in Tempe, Arizona. This is what will be displayed:

Potential customers can call, get directions, order and look at Facebook and Google reviews without ever visiting Infusion’s website. The Google Knowledge Panel can also drive local search. Let’s say a separate user is looking for coffee in Tempe, but they don’t know about Infusion. This is what they will see instead:

The results are once again determined by relevance, authority and proximity. But it’s also clear that reviews are a factor in search rank. The top hit, Cartel Coffee Lab, has a 4.5-star reputation and over 400 reviews. Users can even refine their search by star rating.

Yes, you can control basic information on a Google My Business Page. But that only takes you so far. User-generated content and reviews are featured prominently in the Knowledge Panel. Translation: There’s no substitute for a stellar online reputation.

Promoting reviews

You might notice that a quick Google search of your industry yields mixed results. Some businesses have star ratings attached to their organic results, while others lack reviews altogether.

Do you want to add reviews to your organic results? The secret lies in structured data markup from schema.org. This is HTML markup that gives search engines more information about websites. Rich snippets that appear in the Google results can be composed of text, images, and/or review stars and give the searcher more details to help him/her choose the best, most relevant listing.

Google can display review stars as a rich snippet if it discovers valid reviews or ratings markup on your page. However, businesses have to include reviews on their website in order for them to be displayed, and there are some strict guidelines to follow in this regard:

• Ratings must be sourced directly from users.

• Don’t rely on human editors to create, curate or compile ratings information for local businesses. These types of reviews are critic reviews.

• Sites must collect ratings information directly from users and not from other sites.

So, copying and pasting review text from other review sites (like Yelp) is prohibited under Google policy. The reviews must be unique to your site and not duplicated on other platforms.

Controlling bad reviews

Good reviews can be a valuable tool for driving conversions. But what about bad reviews? It’s true that bad reviews can damage businesses — many potential customers will not purchase from a business with negative reviews.

Some business owners have tried to control bad reviews, but there’s no simple solution. Businesses looking for a quick fix might seek out a pay-for-review site. Not only are these sites illegal, but using them might end up in a penalty from Google and other sites.

Incentivizing reviews can be just as damaging. It’s a violation of Yelp and Google’s terms of service. “Astroturfing,” or creating fake positive reviews for reputation management, is a big taboo in the digital space, and it can lead to penalties from Google.

So, what’s a business to do if they’re stuck with bad reviews? The simple answer is to build a solid reputation. Focus on enhanced customer service, set the right expectations and listen to customer feedback.

You can also score your customer service internally. Net Promoter Score provides a structured way to solicit and analyze customer feedback, giving you a single customer satisfaction metric. Continue to keep an eye on this metric. You can see what is helping (or hurting) your online reviews and adjust your strategies from there.

Sometimes you get lucky and can make a negative review go away simply by offering to make things right for the customer. Fellow Search Engine Land columnist and online reputation strategist Chris Silver Smith describes how to turn things around when responding to a bad review.

Yelp and some of the other prominent reviews sites allow owners to post responses to customer reviews. On Yelp, if you respond to the reviewer and offer to address their issues, then they hopefully will post a follow-up of how you addressed their complaint and exceeded their expectations — making the combined review storyline even more beneficial to your business than an unbroken line of positive reviews.

GetFiveStars is an invaluable tool for improving your reputation on certain sites. It uses your Net Promoter Score in the decision tree; customers/clients are interacted with differently based on their satisfaction level. The service also lets you automate the outreach for feedback. You can focus on getting legitimate, quality reviews and better understand what’s contributing to your online reputation.

Online reviews are embedded into modern search engines. Reputation building doesn’t happen overnight. You must take a proactive approach and use reviews to your advantage. You can’t hide bad reviews, but good reviews can be an integral part of your local search strategy. Online reviews are part of your business, for better or worse. It’s up to you to make the most of them.

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