Yelp Ranking Factors

How would you go about ranking well on Yelp?For a while I’ve pondered a simple question: how does Yelp.com rank the businesses listed on it?

A few of my clients have wondered that, too.  They’ve asked, “Phil, my local rankings in Google are great, but why am I only on page 2 of Yelp for my big search terms?”

Until now, my answer has been “Well, I’m not sure, but I do know priority #1 is to get more customers to write you Yelp reviews.”

I was right – mostly.  Reviews in general are the biggest factor in your Yelp rankings.  (Duh…reviews are Yelp’s whole claim to fame).  That may not be news to you.

But there are specific aspects of those reviews – not just sheer numbers of them – that likely influence your rankings.  Plus, there seem to be entirely separate factors that matter.  (More on those in a second.)

 

Why should you care about your Yelp rankings?

a.  Yelp is already a giant in the local-search realm.  It’s a close second to Google+Local, and the site appears to be growing rapidly.

b.  Yelp has a hardcore user-base.  Yelpers love writing reviews, and they read others’ reviews.  They’re a good group of people to be visible to.

c.  Yelp reviews are fed to other big sites.  Bing Business Portal gets many of its reviews from Yelp – and should be getting more over time.  Plus there’s the soon-to-be partnership with Apple Maps.

d.  If ever we witness an epic “Google fail” (or, more likely, a series of smaller ones) and Google ceases to be the place people go to search for local businesses, my guess is Yelp will fill more of that role.

That, gentle reader, is why you need to pay attention to your Yelp presence (if you don’t already).

But Yelp, like Google, doesn’t exactly broadcast how it ranks businesses on its site.

 

First, a few notes

The little lawyer on my shoulder just reminded me that I should mention a few points before we get into the likely ranking factors.

  • This is based purely on my observations.  Yelp has not “told” me or anyone else what goes into their secret sauce.
  • Nor is this supposed to be some “scientific study” (as if there really is such a thing in the world of SEO).  Apart from a few years of dealing with Yelp for my clients, all I did recently was spend a couple hours studying the rankings in a variety of local markets.
  • All I’m trying to do is sketch out the basic moving parts that seem to make up Yelp’s machinery, so that you can make the most of the factors you can control and just be aware of the ones you can’t.  It would not be smart to try to game Yelp’s rankings (not that you’re the type to do that!).  Even if you could do so, the results probably wouldn’t last for long: Yelp has a lot of employees who “make the rounds” and keep the search results fairly clean.
  • One thing I want to show is the rankings are NOT just about how many reviews you have.
  • The rankings I’m referring to are the ones you see by default when you search on Yelp – the ones ranked by “Best Match”

The Factors

Major factors (I’m 99% sure Yelp takes these into account):

1.  Existence of reviews.  Almost all of the businesses that have reviews rank above the businesses that do not have any reviews.  Think of it as a poker game with an ante of one review.  If you don’t get that one review, you’re not even at the table.

2.  Keyword-relevance of reviews.  Spammers and scammers know about this, too, but Yelp’s filters do a pretty good job of weeding out the bad apples.

3.  Business categories specified.

4.  Name of business.  This is something you just can’t control on Yelp.  But if you have a relevantly-phrased business name, that will work in your favor.

5.  Number of reviews.

6.  Reviews by “Elite” members.  These people are the wizened, weathered village elders.  Their words seem to carry extra heft.

7.  Check-ins via smartphone.  These are going to be even more important once Apple Maps rolls into town.

8.  Quality of reviews.  Are they 1-star or 5-star?  This doesn’t seem to be as big a factor as you might think, but it does seem to be a factor.

Possible additional factors

9.  Number of reviews left for other businesses by reviewer.

10.  Completeness / thoroughness of business profile.

11.  Location-relevance of reviews.

12.  Recentness of reviews.

13.  Frequency of reviews.

14.  Age of listing.  I’d bet you a box of stogies that older listings are assigned a certain amount of “trust” by Yelp, and that they generally rank a little more highly as a result.

15.  Business info from third-party data-providers (particularly Acxiom, according to David Mihm’s Local Search Ecosystem).

16.  Editorial discretion of Yelp employees.

 

How might you improve your Yelp visibility?

  • Get duplicate listings removed.  You want any and all reviews your customers write to benefit one listing, rather than sorta-kinda benefit two listings.  You don’t want your reviews spread thinly.
  • Try to prevent future duplicates from popping up.  If this has been a problem, what I suggest you do is go to the upstream data-aggregators – Acxiom, InfoGroup, and LocalEze – and make sure you only have ONE listing per location on those sites, and that those sites list the same business info that your Yelp listing has.
  • Specify as many relevant business categories as you can.  Emphasis on ”relevant.”
  • Claim your Yelp profile so that you can write in-depth descriptions of your business and services.
  • When asking customers for reviews, your first question should be “Have you ever written Yelp reviews?”  If the answer is “yes,” simply ask those people to post a Yelp review for you.  They’ll know what to do.  Reviews left by first-time users are more likely to get filtered out.  Even if you ask someone who’s never heard of Yelp, that’s fine; just know that there’s a chance his/her review will never see the light of day.
  • If you’re face-to-face with a particularly enthusiastic, smartphone-fondling customer, ask him or her to give to go onto Yelp real quickly and give you a check-in.
  • Get in the habit of asking customers for feedback on Yelp.  Don’t have a Yelp-review binge weekend.  Ask customers as close to real-time as possible – not 2 months after you’ve provided your services.  I guarantee you won’t be able to drum up many reviews if you do it in bursts.  Just stick with it.

It would be very cool if someone else – maybe you! – continues to dig into the question of why some businesses rank more highly on Yelp than others do.

I’d love to hear any of your first-hand experience with Yelp rankings and visibility, or if you do some research and draw some new conclusions about Yelp’s likely ranking factors.

The Local Business Reviews Ecosystem

In the offline world it’s hard to figure out exactly how your business gets a certain reputation, or exactly how “word gets around.”  But online this is something you can actually figure out pretty well.

How?  By knowing which online review sites are the most influential and “contagious.”  (Not “viral” – that’s an overused, exaggerated term.)

There are two kinds of online local-business reviews: ones that have “legs” and ones that don’t.

Many IYP (“internet yellow pages”) sites share reviews with other sites.  For example, the reviews in Bing local say “Powered by Yelp.”  CitySearch feeds 14 other major review sites – possibly more.  The same reviews that appear on CitySearch and Yelp appear word-for-word on other sites (often with attribution to the original source).  That’s what I mean when I say one site feeds reviews to or shares reviews with another site.

Customer reviews written on Google+Local pages pretty much stay at home and eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in their bunny slippers.

I bet you can’t ask customers to review you on 20 different sites.  You probably can’t even easily monitor what’s said about you on the dozens of sites where customers might drop you a review.  But if you know the few linchpin sites that feed the others, you can focus your review-gathering efforts on those sites.  It’s the 80/20 rule.

I’ve mapped out which major (and some not-so-major) US sites share reviews with each other.  Check out the Ecosystem:

(click to enlarge)

Wrapped your head around all of that yet?  No?  Well, I’ll move on to a few notes on the Local Business Reviews Ecosystem anyway:

  • If you’ve ever seen David Mihm’s unfairly awesome “Local Search Ecosystem,” you’ll notice the resemblance.  I’ve always liked that layout, and I thought it would be a good fit here.

 

  • Not every review on a particular site always gets fed to other sites.  For instance, even though InsiderPages feeds some reviews to JudysBook, it doesn’t seem that every InsiderPages review for a given business finds its way onto the JudysBook reviews for that business.  I haven’t figured out the rhyme or reason, but I do know that the transmission usually isn’t complete.

 

  • Reviews don’t seem to “trickle” too far.  Even though InsiderPages shares with SuperPages and SuperPages shares with YellowBot, I’ve found that you won’t necessarily see a bunch of InsiderPages reviews on YellowBot.

 

  • The Ecosystem doesn’t include certain types of sites.  It doesn’t include paid review-management sites like DemandForce and which sites their reviews are fed to.  Nor does it inclue include industry-specific sites like UrbanSpoon or Fixr: the focus is on “horizontal” directories that any business can be listed on.  Last, it doesn’t include really little sites: for instance, I know that InsiderPages feeds Goby.com, but I’m not sure that many people here in the States use Goby, nor would that fact change your review strategy a whole lot.

 

  • Don’t feel like looking at the arrows again, and just want to know which sites I think are the ones you really need to pay attention to and (ideally) get reviews on?  I’d say it’s a three-way tie between Yelp, CitySearch, and Google+Local (although it doesn’t really feed reviews to other sites, it’s Google, so it’s essential).  Then InsiderPages, then JudysBook.  Not only are these sites the biggest and most popular, but they’ll also spread your reviews all over creation.

 

  • Yelp reviews will be feeding Apple Maps pretty soon.  So in the not-too-distant future Apple will trot into the Ecosystem and start eating some of the other critters.

 

 

  • These are all the sharing/feeding relationships I know of.  I just know there are others out there.  But these are the major connections, from what I’ve been able to tell.  If you know of any sites that share reviews, please let me know!

21 Ways to Get Customer Reviews: the Ultimate List

I don’t usually do this, but let’s get theoretical for just a second:

Every satisfied customer of yours should bring you more customers.  The ideal is for word-of-mouth to do all the work—for your happy customers to refer their friends to you, who in turn become customers.  Not having to advertise in any way is the best.

But what if you’re not quite at that stage?  That’s when the next-best thing needs to happen: for every happy customer to influence potential customers.

More specifically, short of having your customers actually deliver more customers to your door, the best thing is for your current customers to sway potential ones by writing great reviews of your business.

Let me put it another way, using a new-agey metaphor: The goal is to re-channel as much positive energy as you can.  It’s like karma, man.

You work your tail off to do a super job.  Sure, that’s its own reward, because you get paid and your customers get what they wanted.  Everybody’s happy.  But is that the only reward you get?  Or do you also get at least a little public recognition for every great job you do?

Without reviews, it’s harder for people to conclude that they should pick you over your competitors.  Plus without reviews you’re far less likely to outrank your competitors in Google Places and Bing.

The bottom line is you need to ask each and every happy customer for a review.  But how?

This is where even the smartest business owners—the ones who know how important reviews are to potential customers—often get stuck.  They’re not sure how to ask customers or how to show them what to do, so the reviews never happen.

Fortunately, you’ve got options.  21 of them.

I know of 21 ways you can get reviews—reviews that customers either write directly on your Google Places page (AKA “Google reviews”) or write through third-party sites (like Yelp and CitySearch).

Many of these methods also give you a way of including instructions for people who may not know how to leave you a review.

It doesn’t matter how much time you have, or how many customers you have, or how computer-savvy they are.  At least some of these methods will work for you.

Here are your 21 ways to get reviews (not ranked in any particular order):

  1. Organic method—making sure your business is listed on as many third-party sites as possible, so that customers can find you if they feel like writing reviews spontaneously.  One place to start is by making sure you’re listed on all the suggested sites on GetListed.org.
  2. Links or clickable images on your site—something that customers who return to your site can click on to write you reviews.  (Here’s an example.)
  3. Single-page handouts—a sheet of instructions you can simply hand to customers, which walks them through how to post a review.  (I actually make handouts for Google reviews, by the way :).)
  4. Personal email—a simple email with a polite request and a link.  But for Pete’s sake, personalize it: none of that “Dear Valued Customer” garbage.  You can also do this with your email signature: instead of a bunch of fluff at the bottom of your emails, have a little link to where customers can dash off a quick review.
  5. Autoresponder email—if you have your customers on an email list through a service like AWeber, you can have an email request for a review that goes out automatically.
  6. ReviewBiz button—a great way to get an extra trickle of reviews from customers who go to your site.
  7. Snail-mail request/instructions—people generally pay more attention to snail-mail, especially if it’s personalized and from a business they know and like.  This method is more work, but you’ll probably bat pretty well if you do it.
  8. Video—a short walkthrough, for customers who you think would just rather watch a quick video than follow other types of easy instructions.
  9. Social media—in particular, Facebook.  What’s nice is customers can write CitySearch reviews using their Facebook username, which makes it that much easier for them and you.
  10. On-site “review stations”—just a laptop set up in your office / store that people can write a review on.  This isn’t against the rules of Google Places, but just don’t ask people to leave you Yelp reviews through the same IP.
  11. Paid services—like CustomerLobby or DemandForce, which contact your customers for you and help get some reviews posted.
  12. QR code on a postcard—hand or send your customers a little postcard that asks them to review you by scanning a QR code with their smartphones.  The QR code would just contain a link to your Google Places page, or a link to your InsiderPages listing, etc.  (Here’s a handy QR code generator.)
  13. QR code as a sticker or decal—the sticker or decal could go anywhere in your office or store, and customers could scan it with their smartphones to review you on the spot.
  14. Phone call—kinda old-fashioned, but effective with the right kind of customer.
  15. Reverse side of your business card—on one side of your classy engraved business card is your basic info, on the other site a QR code or link that goes to a review site of your choice.
  16. A “We’re a Favorite Place on Google” decal—which you could put near the “Exit” side of your door.
  17. A slip or insert included with your product.  The slip could simply be a piece of paper with a request, but ideally it would also include some instructions for people who may not know how to go about posting a review.
  18. Part of a little gift that you send customers.  Like a free pad of paper with your logo and phone number on it, plus a request to leave you a quick review.  Or a fridge magnet.  A pen might be a little too small.  The gift has to be something people will actually use, keep on their desk or kitchen table, and see every day.  The idea is it’s a subtle but persistent reminder.
  19. Encouraging reviews in the responses you write to reviews on your Google Places page.  Some fraction of the people visiting your Places page will be your current or past customers.  They’re likely to read the reviews on your page, as well as your responses (which you should be in the habit of writing!).  This is an opportunity to encourage others subtly to write reviews, too.  I emphasize subtly.
  20. Asking family members of customers who already reviewed you.  Let’s say you’re a jeweler and your latest customer just bought a really nice engagement ring for his fiancée.  The gent has one perspective to offer (“Great service, really helped me pick out the ring”) whereas the lady also has a unique perspective (“I love the ring!”).  Why not?  Even though it’s one transaction, they’re both customers.  The only caveat is this only works well when you’re dealing with close customers.
  21. Asking your reviewers to write through a variety of sites.  In other words, if you know for a fact a given customer wrote you a Yelp review, ask that person to write you an InsiderPages review, too.  There are no rules against it, and it’s plenty kosher.  In fact, the review sites themselves share reviews: I’ve seen CitySearch reviews show up on Bing, Judysbook, Kudzu, MerchantCircle, Switchboard, Yahoo, YellowBot, and YP.  Again, I suggest you only do this with really close, really loyal customers who don’t mind helping spread the good word.

These methods are NOT mutually exclusive, nor do you have to pick one or even just a few.  You can use as many of them as you’d like.  In fact, it’s best if you use a variety of them, so you get reviews on a variety of sites, and so you can determine over time what works best for you and your customers.

By the way, if some of your customers just don’t manage to give you reviews, but they’re kind enough to write you testimonials, put them on your site.  And mark up the testimonials with hReview microformat, so that you can get those groovy extra “review stars” showing up whenever your site shows up in Google’s search results.  Make every customer happy, then make every happy customer count.

What review-gathering method(s) have worked best for you so far?  Can you think of any I didn’t?  Go ahead…leave a comment!