BrightLocal Webinar on Local Reviews

Today I had the pleasure once again of speaking on a webinar put on by BrightLocal.  It’s part of the InsideLocal series of webinars that’s been going since July, and that will continue through the end of the year.

The one today was all about reviews.

Here’s the video, and below it is the slide deck.

Enjoy!

 

Thanks again to Myles Anderson for inviting me, and to Don Campbell (fellow speaker) and Linda Buquet (Q&A moderator) for a great job.

Any questions?  Thoughts on review strategy?  Feel free to leave a comment on Linda’s forum, or right here.

Boss Jobs in Local SEO

I’m talking about the specific tasks in a local SEO campaign that the boss of the company must do personally.

boss-jobs

The boss: the one person who can’t quit or get fired, who most wants more customers, and who ultimately has to fix any problems that keep customers away.

The tasks: few in number and pretty easy stuff, but stuff that only one person can do.

Everyone wants a 100% hands-free solution to getting visible in Google’s local search results and beyond – a way to get the phone to ring without his/her involvement.  I offer something mighty close to that, but it’s 95% hands-free; there’s that little 5% that the person in-charge must do, or there’s a logjam and the crucial to-dos don’t get done.

I walk my clients through that 5%, and I’m going to lay out those tasks for you right now.

If you’re not the boss, I suggest you saunter over to the corner office now, interrupt your boss’s mini-golf, and have a read-aloud.

If you’re the boss, read on.  Because if you don’t personally do the below, you’re hurting your local rankings and visibility, limiting your ability to attract new customers, and letting down any employees who depend on you for a paycheck.

Boss Job #1:  Understand how long a good local SEO effort can take to bring results, and work on growing other sources of visibility/customers in the meantime, if necessary.  I’m the biggest local SEO advocate there is.  But building a business on one source of visibility is like building a chair with one leg.

Boss Job #2:  Be or hand-pick the person at your company who will do the phone-verifications for the really important listings.

I’m talking mainly about ExpressUpdate, LocalEze, CitySearch, YellowPages, and Yelp.  (And FourSquare, if you’re gung-ho.)

Those sites require someone who works at your company to pick up the phone at the number you use for your local listings and enter a spoken PIN into the site where you’re trying to create/claim your listing.

If you use call-forwarding, that person will need to disable the forwarding so that he/she can pick up the phone at the number that’s displayed on your listings.

If you can do the phone-verifications personally, great.  But if not, hand-pick the person who will.  You’ll want to know exactly whom to take out to the toolshed if it doesn’t get done.

Boss Job #3:  Buy the domain name and hosting of your site(s) personally.

As in not through a third party, even if you pay that third party to do work on your site.

Same reason as for Boss Job #2.

Boss Job #4:  Have personal control of the Google account used to create/claim your Google+ Local listing, your Bing listing, and your citations.

If someone quits or is fired, you should still have access to all your listings.

Boss Job #5:  Oversee the process of asking customers for reviews.

Nobody outside of your company can or should do it.  It’s a question of who in-house should do it.  It should either be someone high-up – so that the customer doesn’t feel like a non-priority – or it should be the person who actually performed the service for the customer.

If you aren’t that person or pick the person who will ask customers, either the reviews won’t come because it’s “someone else’s” job to ask for them, or the results won’t be good.

Boss Job #6:  Oversee the writing of any blog posts or “content” that’s put on your site.

I do NOT mean you should write each piece (or any) personally, nor do I mean that you should even critique or proofread more than a few of them from time to time.

What I am saying you need to do is make sure the person who does the writing (1) won’t pump out keyword-stuffed drivel that’s laden with anchor text and that might win you a black eye from Google, (2) won’t plagiarize, (3) won’t incur photo-copyright violations, and (4) won’t write stuff that’s so bad that would-be customers hit the “back” button.

The good news is everything else you can delegate to employees or to people with the necessary skills.  Yep, I’m referring to that other 95% of the work that goes into a good local SEO campaign.

Any other “boss jobs” that you can think of?  Questions about how to do any of them?  Leave a comment!

State of the Most-Important Local Search Sites (Mid-2013)

A lot has changed in the last few months in the world of local search.  All of it affects your efforts to get visible to local customers.

I’m not even talking about Google+ Local.  Like Oprah’s weight, Google is in a constant state of flux.  Phone support, the carousel, the return of review stars…it’s a roller coaster.

Rather, I’m talking about other sites and search engines.  They’ve been under the blade.  Some have emerged from the operating room with nice facelifts.  Others elicit a “Yeecch!”

If you run a “local” business in the US, you’ll need to deal with all of the below sites – either because they’re popular sites in their own right, or because they can affect your Google rankings .  Here’s what you need to know about how they’ve changed recently:

 

 

Yes, it’s now called “Bing Places.”  The recent changes have mostly been cosmetic, although there have been a few small improvements.  The thing that jarred me recently was that Bing required a client of mine to phone-verify a listing on which we wanted to change the phone number.  I don’t recall ever having to do that before.  Bing seems to have new rules for when you can verify by postcard versus by phone.  (Update: Thanks to always-sharp Nyagoslav Zhekov for the Bing intel in his comment at the bottom of this post.)

 

 

Some months ago (I’m not sure exactly when), Yahoo spruced up its listing-manager area a little bit.  Aside from that, Yahoo still is its clunky old self – and probably clunkier than ever.  But you still need to wrangle with Yahoo, so you’re visible to that sliver of that population that prefers it.

 

 

Revamped and renamed in June.  ExpressUpdate now requires business owners to claim their listings by phone personally.  Let’s say you added your business to the site a year ago (or had someone else do it), claimed your listing, and have been happy ever since.  Now let’s say you need to update one bit of info on your listing.  Your old login won’t work.  You have to look up your listing, claim it by phone, and wait for ExpressUpdate to approve you and give you new login info.  Then you can make changes.

 

 

You can’t add a free listing to LocalEze, as of April.  If you want to add your listing for the first time, you need to pay $300/year, find a reseller who can sign you up for less, or wait until LocalEze gets fed your business info from other sites.  If you already have a listing on LocalEze and you need to fix some of the info, you can make one round of edits per year for free.

 

 

Still an obstacle course (as I wrote a year ago).  If you want to add your listing for the first time, you can either email the CitySearch folks at myaccount@citygridmedia.com, or you’ll have to wait until the site is fed your listing from ExpressUpdate.  Once your listing is added – or if it’s already on the site – you’ll need to claim it by phone at https://signup.citygrid.com/cyb/find_business.

You’ll want to keep in mind that CitySearch’s parent company recently laid off two-thirds of its staff, and that any step in the whole process I just described might be slow as a result.

Honorable mention goes to Local.BOTW.org.  It’s not as important as the above sites, but it’s a good citation to have.  It’s no longer free.  (Maybe that will make it a really good citation to have, in the way David Mihm described 5 years ago.)

Instead of offering the free “JumpStart” listing, in June they started asking for a whole $1.99 per month, if you aren’t already listed on BOTW Local and want to add your listing.  Old listings have been grandfathered in.

Other important sites – Yelp, YP, SuperPages, etc. – are the same as they’ve always been.  No changes to report at the moment.

Anything you’d like to add about any of those sites?  Any questions?  Leave a comment.

Review of Grade.us (Tool for Customer Reviews)

Recently I learned of a new tool that helps business owners ask customers for reviews.  It’s called Grade.us.  From what I’ve seen so far, I like it.

How it works

You create a page (hosted on Grade.us) that contains two things: (1) a message to your customers, and (2) some buttons that they can click on to write you a review on any of a variety of sites.

Then you just send your customers to that page, from which they can choose where they’d like to review your services.

Here’s an example of a page I whipped together for a client:

As you can tell, each button links to your business listing on a given site.  Obviously, that means your business needs to have a live listing on a site, so that you can visit your listing and grab the link and paste it into Grade.us.

You can create buttons for 37 different sites:

Google+, Yahoo, Yelp, Angie’s List, CitySearch, InsiderPages, MerchantCircle, YP, SuperPages, YellowBook, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Patch, YellowBot, Tupalo, DealerRater, Cars.com, OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, Zagat, MenuPages, Vitals, HealthGrades, RateMDs, UCompare HealthCare, DROogle, Wellness, ThirdAge, SpaFinder, Zillow, Trulia, TripAdvisor, Fodor’s, Orbitz, and Travelocity.

You can also add a “custom link” – that is, create a review button for a site that’s not on the long list.

What I like

  • It has a clean, simple layout for customers.  Also, the buttons are nice and big.
  • When customers click on the buttons, they’re given a few quick site-specific instructions for how to write a review on a given site (if they don’t know how already).

  • The variety – the fact that it has review buttons for 37 different sites, and lets you create a custom link (in case there’s a different site you want reviews on).  As I explained during my talk at SMX West, giving customers choices and not shoehorning them into one review site or another is the best way to avoid having your reviews get filtered.
  • The buttons show customers which sites allow them to log in with their Facebook (or Google) usernames.

  • It doesn’t attempt to censor people who might write you a less-than glowing review.  Some review-request tools will first ask customers to indicate how many stars they’d like to leave you, and if it’s fewer than a certain number of stars, they’ll be shuttled off to a “Contact Us” form.  This is bad in several ways, but the worst part is it makes the process unnecessarily complicated for the customers who will write you a very positive review.
  • The user-interface for you is nice and simple.  You don’t even need to know any HTML.
  • It’s quick to create your page.  I created one in 10 minutes.
  • It’s affordable, at $29/month for a single location or $59/month for multiple locations.
  • It’s mobile-friendly.
  • There’s a free trial available.  (I didn’t go through the signup process for that, though; the creator of the tool, Jon Hall, was nice enough to give me a license key to try it out.)
  • It’s nicely white-labeled – as much as can be, short of having your page hosted on your site.  The Grade.us logo isn’t plastered on your page, and you can choose not to include the already-unobtrusive footer link on your page.

  • You can integrate your page with Google Analytics.

Possible improvements (AKA my gripes)

  • There are some elements that you should be able to customize, but can’t at the moment.  For instance, some might say the review buttons are too big, and that for a certain customer base (e.g. younger customers) smaller buttons would be better.
  • They need an FAQ page, and maybe a “Dos and Don’ts” resource.
  • It’s still a new tool – which means there are still a few bugs.  For instance, the “Forgot password?” option doesn’t work, if you happen to forget your password.

In a nutshell

Grade.us is nicely put together.  It’s quick and simple to set up your page, and it makes it simple for customers to post reviews.  From what I can see, it’s also ethical: You’re not dissuading less-than-beaming customers from posting a review.

It’s so new I haven’t had much of a chance to field-test it for my clients, but it’s already a very good tool, and I’m looking forward to seeing it progress further.

Any feedback on the tool?  Questions for me or for the Grade.us crew?  Leave a comment!

IYP Ranking Factors: Getting Visible in Local-Biz Directories

IYPs – short for “Internet Yellow Pages” – get a bum rap.

Some of it is true:

Yes, they’re directories, not search engines.

Yes, some of them are mere flies on the windshield of Google.

Yes, we often harbor murderous fantasies when one of their sales representatives calls us on the phone.

It’s for all these reasons and others that most business owners pay little attention to these sites.

This makes sense on one level: these sites don’t have nearly as much “eyeball share” as Google does.

But it’s a mistake.  If you’re in a competitive local market, you’re going to want every edge you can get.

More specifically: you’ll want every promising eyeball you can get (not to sound creepy or anything).  On the whole, many people use IYP sites – partly because Google usually ranks them above or right below its own local search results.

That’s why you need to know basically how these third-party directory sites rank their business listings: as on Google, on these sites there are visible businesses and invisible ones.  You want yours to be in the first group.

These sites influence your Google+Local rankings, too, but that’s another story.

I recently spent a few hours trying to figure out what separates some businesses from others on 7 of the biggest IYP sites.  I’ve listed the sites in alphabetical order, with the ranking factors for each underneath.

Here are the ranking factors I’ve found for each site:

(Please note: these simply are my observations, based on a few hours of gumshoeing and several years of helping my clients with local search.)

 

1. Reviews (AKA “ratings”).  That’s it.  One ranking factor.

In terms of how CitySearch ranks businesses, there is a very clear pecking order:

-“Best of CitySearch” winners (if there are any in a particular local market).

-Then businesses that havereviews, ranked in descending order of “CitySearch score” and/or number of reviews (more on this in a second).

-Then businesses with no reviews.

A little more detail:

Businesses that win the “Best of CitySearch” award tend to have some reviews, but I’ve seen winners that have 1 or 2, which leads me to believe reviews may not even be a factor in winning.  My understanding always has been that there are judges – AKA “scouts” – who pick the winners, but I’ve always been unclear on the specifics (despite a couple of unanswered inquiries on my part).  Whatever the case, BoC winners get the top spots.

Slightly farther down the totem pole are all the businesses with reviews.  All of them rank above all the businesses without reviews.

How do all the businesses with reviews get sorted out?  Well, that leads us to “CitySearch score.”  It’s the equivalent of an “average rating” (like what you see on Google and Yelp).  100% is perfect.  75% may mean that 3 out of 4 customers gave you a positive rating – which they can do without actually having to string together a couple sentences in a review.

CitySearch ranks businesses mostly by score, but also by number of ratings.

CitySearch usually ranks businesses with 90% above ones with 85%, which in turn outrank the ones at 72%, and so on.  You get the idea.

There are some exceptions to this: Occasionally a business with a 90% CitySearch score will outrank one with a 100%.  In these cases, the number of ratings also seems to be a factor: a business with 95% based on 60 ratings may outrank a business with 100% based on 20 ratings.

But businesses with a score of 50% or more always outrank the ones that have a score below 50%

When several businesses have 100% scores (which is common), it seems that the one with the highest number of reviews/ratings will be at the top.

Given that your local competitors probably don’t include many or any “Best of CitySearch” winners, and that businesses without any reviews rarely are contenders on the site, your #1 task is just to rack up a couple of reviews on the site.  (CitySearch reviews help you out on many other sites, too.)

 

1.  Paid results.  Businesses that pay get the top spots.  Everyone else dukes it out based on:

2.  Reviews.  InsiderPages is similar to CitySearch in this way.  All businesses with reviews outrank all the ones that don’t have any.

Here, too, the businesses are ranked based on the number of reviews they have and by order of average rating (e.g. 5-star average, 4-star average, etc.).  But unlike on CitySearch, here the number of reviews seems to carry a little more weight than how high the average star rating is.  It appears quantity matters a bit more than quality, in this regard.

 

1. Being “Verified by Manta.”  Once you create your Manta profile, they call you up to make sure your info is accurate.  I don’t recall ever having done this with my clients (maybe once or twice…don’t remember), but I believe it’s free.

2.  Business name.  If the name of your Manta listing includes a given search term or city name, you’ll probably rank highly for it.  But do NOT mess with your business name just to grab an extra edge: it may hurt the all-important consistency of your “NAP” info across the web.

By the way, there’s no such thing as a “Manta review,” so reviews aren’t even part of the equation here.  Probably all you can do to climb over a few competitors is owner-verify your Manta listing (again, with the caveat that I’m not 100% sure whether it’s free – not that it necessarily would be a bad use of a buck).

 

1.  Paid results.

2.  Business name.

3.  Reviews (?).  This is a bit unclear to me: although businesses with reviews generally seem to outrank ones that don’t, sometimes I’ll click on a listing with a star rating next to it and the actual listing page for the business won’t show any reviews (I have a theory about this, though).  I do know, though, that MerchantCircle is no stranger to the occasional shenanigan.  It’s definitely a good site to be on, and you’ll want to make sure your listing is complete and accurate.  I just don’t really know the extent to which MerchantCircle reviews help you on the site (or in your Google+Local rankings).

 

1. Paid results.  SuperPages seems to have a ton of businesses on-board with “sponsored listings” – to such an extent that the “basic” listings often are halfway down the page or lower.

2.  Business name.

3.  Categories.  SuperPages has an unusually wide range of categories you can list your business under, but you can’t specify any custom categories.  You can pick up to 5.  It’s really worth taking a few minutes to make sure you pick them wisely.  (One good practice is to check out which ones your competitors are using.)

4.  Reviews.  Relative to other sites, SuperPages doesn’t have an enormous amount of review activity – though certainly it would be smart to make sure you get a couple reviews on it.  In effect, this makes the other 3 main ranking factors I’ve identified a little more important.

 

I did a whole post on Yelp ranking factors, as you may have seen.  But here are the CliffsNotes on what seem to be the biggest ranking factors:

1.  Existence of reviews.

2.  Keyword-relevance of reviews

3.  Categories.

4.  Name of business.

5.  Number of reviews.

6.  Reviews by “Elite” members.

7.  Check-ins via smartphone.

8.  Quality of reviews.

(For more detail, check out the post.)

 

Let’s start this one off with some great observations by my good buddy Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca:

I looked at some businesses ranking in yellowpages.ca a while back and it looked to me that the #1 thing was just to get a couple reviews. Any reviews. Most businesses didn’t have any reviews on the site, and the ones that did tended to rank. The trouble with yellowpages.ca is that they randomize the rankings on every page load. Refresh this a few times: http://www.yellowpages.ca/search/si/1/plumbers/Edmonton+AB

The items in blue are paid, and the items with pins are paid as well but a lower cost package. It looks pretty random.

I’m pretty sure that if you phone and talk to a sales rep at most directories, they’ll tell you exactly how the rankings are generated. Typically it’s paid level 1, paid level 2, paid level 3, then random non-paid with reviews possibly playing a role. They seem to randomize the various paid levels as well so that each business gets equal opportunity to rank #1 in their section.

 Just for the sake of comparing notes, here are the YP ranking factors I’ve noticed:

1. Paid results.  They’re everywhere.  The only randomized results – the ones Darren mentions (above) – seem to be the paid results.  The “basic,” free listings appear to rank the same way consistently – based on some of the ranking factors we’ve seen elsewhere.

2.  Business name.

3.  Categories.

4.  Reviews.  YP is an important site to your local-search efforts in a lot of ways – certainly if you’re in the US, but especially if you’re in another country.  Even if you don’t give a hoot about how visible you are on YP, I do recommend getting at least a few reviews there.

Even if some of specific factors I mentioned were news to you, the takeaway messages from all of this shouldn’t be news:

1.  Make dead-certain you’re listed on each of the above sites, spend a few minutes picking out the most-relevant categories you can for your listings, and try to get reviews on as many of the sites as you possibly can.

2.  Although many ad packages are a waste (or an outright scam), don’t necessarily dismiss them out of hand.  For instance, if there’s on IYP site where you have a ton of great reviews, getting more people to see that listing may pay off.

3.  Whenever there’s an often-ignored to-do item that can set you apart on one specific site (like verifying your Manta profile), do it.  Most of your competitors would rather kick back and shovel Pringles into their faces than take a few minutes to pick low-hanging fruit.

Do you have any thoughts on / experience with the sites I mentioned or with others?  Any advice or suggestions?  Leave a comment!

How to Add a Free CitySearch Business Listing (Temporary Solution)

Update 4/11/13: If your business is already listed on CitySearch and you simply want to claim your listing so you can make edits to it, go to https://signup.citygrid.com/cyb/find_business.  If your business isn’t listed on CitySearch and you’re trying to add it, follow the below instructions.

 —

Adding a free business listing to CitySearch.com has always been a little tricky.

It hasn’t even always been possible to do so: the site has flip-flopped between offering free listings and not offering them.

The latest curveball is the disappearance of CitySearch’s old “Add a business” form.  It used to be buried a couple pages deep on the site, but – as I noticed a few weeks ago – the “submit” form now is completely gone.

No apparent way to list a business manually on CitySearch – other than maybe to wait a few months for InfoGroup to feed your info into the backend.

Bummer.  It’s one of those sites your business needs to be listed on if you want to rank well in the Google+Local search results.  Plus, especially given Google’s disastrous handling of Google+Local customer reviews recently and CitySearch’s huge role in the “local business reviews ecosystem,” it’s become a really good idea to try to get reviews on CitySearch.  For which you need a listing on CitySearch.

My clever workaround solution?  I poured myself a cold brew and resigned myself to being temporarily unable to build CitySearch listings for my newest clients.  I’d been on the choppy old wooden roller coaster at CitySearch Land before and just assumed there was nothing to be done about the bumpy ride.

But today Travis Van Slooten of TVS Internet Marketing kindly told me that there’s actually a way – albeit a somewhat clunky and inconvenient one.  His email explains:

They recently changed the format of their site and the “Add a Business” link broke and they are working on getting it back up. The problem is, the customer service rep I talked to said there was no time table as to when it will be fixed.

In the mean time, you can add a business for free by emailing them directly. Their email address is: myaccount@citygridmedia.com

All you have to give them is [your business name, address, and phone number] , web address, and category and they’ll add it manually for you. It takes them 3-5 days to create the listing and then 2 weeks before it’s searchable on their website.

To correct or delete duplicates, just send them an email at the same email address and they’ll fix everything for you. You don’t even have to have any listings claimed. You can just tell them, “I want to keep this listing so I can claim it but first make all these changes to it. Then for these other 2, please delete them.” Supposedly they’ll sort everything out for you.

If you already knew about this approach, I’m glad.  But if you’re anything like me, then the above solution comes as a bit of good news to you.

I’d love to hear about your recent experiences with CitySearch free listings – so please leave a comment if you’ve got any intel to share.

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

21 ways you can get customer reviewsI 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!

Which Awards Grow Your Local-Search Stature?

How decorated and distinguished is your business?Every now and then I stumble across a business in Google Places that has a sweet “best-of” –type award sitting right at the top of its Places page.

I don’t run across these awards too frequently—but when a business has one, I notice it.

More often than not it’s a “Best of CitySearch” award, but sometimes I see other types.

Example of an award highlighted on a Google Places page

For a few years I’ve wondered how many “best local business” awards are out there and (more importantly) which ones can help a business attract more local customers in one way or another.

I did a little research and found some distinctions that can help your local visibility in some or all of the following ways.  These are awards that:

  • Google will showcase prominently at the top of your Places page,
  • You can take a picture of and upload as a photo on your Google Places page,
  • You can feature prominently and “talk up” on your website,
  • Earn you a link from the site that awarded you the distinction, or
  • Increase your visibility and reputation to customers on local-business sites other than Google Places.

Here are some of the most visibility-enhancing awards you can win (depending on your industry):

Angie’s List Super Service Award (see example on Places page)

Best of CitySearch (see example on Places page)

Gayot awards (see example on Places page)

MojoPages: MojoAwards

OpenTable: Diner’s Choice (see example on Places page)

TravelandLeisure awards (see example on Places page)

TripAdvisor: Traveler’s Choice

Vitals: Patients’ Choice

Take a look at this spreadsheet for more info about each award.

Chances are your business is eligible for at least one of those awards.  But not necessarily.   It depends largely on your industry.  Just look into the ones that seem as though they might apply to you (that’s why I made the spreadsheet).

What if you try hard to get recognized as a “best-of” but don’t end up winning the blue ribbon?  Well, you’ll still come out ahead.  In order to pursue the award in the first place, you need to get tons of positive feedback from customers—often in the form of glowing reviews.  Those third-party reviews can help your Places ranking hugely (as you may know).  You’ll also boost your prominence or rankings on the site where you’ve been pursuing the award, which will mean more visibility to potential customers who use that site.

Most likely you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results of your push to win—and you’ll get a snazzier-looking Places page, a good link, more bragging rights, and probably more local customers out of the deal.

By the way, please leave a comment if you know of any really good local-biz awards that aren’t on my list.  Extra kudos if you can find awards that you’ve seen highlighted on someone’s Google Places page (and that aren’t on my list).

Cold Hard Numbers on How Third-Party Reviews Help Google Places Rankings

Customer reviews are crucial to your local rankings and overall success in Google Places, as you may know.  You need reviews that customers write directly on your Google Places page, and you need customer reviews on third-party sites like InsiderPages, CitySearch, etc.

We know that the first type of reviews—“Google reviews,” written directly on your Places page—have a strong influence on Google Places rankings.  That’s well-established, and I’ve seen it to be the case throughout the 3 years I’ve been specializing in Google Local.

"Just the facts, ma'am." - Sgt. Joe Friday (Dragnet)But what about reviews written on third-party sites?  Yeah, they’re important.  But what else do you know about third-party reviews and how they relate to your Google Places rankings?  Probably not much more or less than I did before I did a little fact-finding on the topic.

I took a “core sample” of 200 local markets and 1400 businesses in Google Places, in all different industries and cities in the US.

(Back in July of last year I did similar research, but that was on “Google reviews” and third-party reviews collectively.  This time I’m focusing on the third-party ones.)

Obviously this wasn’t exhaustive research—if it was, I’d be using my break from collecting data to  shop around for some glass eyeballs. However, I’ve got enough figures to answer some specific questions about how third-party reviews tie into first-page Google Places rankings.

 

“How many different third-party sites does a top-7 business have customer reviews on, on average?”

When you’re on a given Places page, how many distinct sites are shown as having reviews for that business?  For example:

How many sites are top-7 Google Places rankings typically reviewed on?

What I wanted to know is how the number of third-party review sites corresponds to Google Places rankings.  Here’s what I found:

Top-7 Places rankings typically have reviews on 1-2 third-party sites

Here are the naked numbers for the chart (that is, how many different third-party sites each ranking has customer reviews on):

A = 1.52

B = 1.46

C = 1.29

D = 1.06

E = 1.095

F = 0.99

G = 0.955

What do these numbers tell us?

First of all, there is a correspondence between the Google Places ranking of a business and how many third-party sites it has customer reviews on.  Maybe you intuitively knew that already, but now you have some numbers.

The top-3 rankings have customer reviews on more sites than rankings #4-7 do.  The difference is even clearer between A-B and F-G: rankings A-B generally have reviews on 1-2 third-party sites, whereas the lower rankings tend to have reviews on just one third-party site.  That’s a ratio of 3:2.  Put another way, the businesses at the top of the Google Places “7-pack” typically have customer reviews on 50% more third-party sites than the businesses at the bottom of the 7-pack have.

The numbers also tell us that if your business is in the top-7 of Google Places, chances are you’ve got customer reviews on at least one third-party site—meaning a medium other than Google Places or Yelp.com (because Yelp reviews no longer show up on Google Places pages).

This helps affirm what I’ve told my clients for a long time, and what Mike Blumenthal has suggested for quite a while: that you can’t simply rely on the reviews that customers write on your Places page.  If you’re serious about getting a top-7 Google Places ranking, one good place to start is with asking  some of your customers to write you reviews on at least one third-party site (InsiderPages, SuperPages, YellowPages, CitySearch, or another).

 

“How many third-party reviews does a top-7 business have, on average?”

Here’s what I found:

Top-7 Places rankings usually have 5-8 reviews on third-party sites

And again, the plain numbers for how many third-party reviews each ranking has (on average), between all the third-party sites where customers have posted reviews:

A = 8.255

B = 8.335

C = 5.87

D = 4.71

E = 4.235

F = 5.515

G = 4.325

What does this tell us?

The top-2 rankings have significantly more reviews than rankings C-G (3-7).  Once again, we’re seeing a difference of 50-100% between the top of the “7-pack” and the rest of it.

Again, this doesn’t count Google Places reviews (which obviously aren’t “third-party”) or Yelp reviews (which Google Places no longer uses).

Most of all, we’ve got a couple more handy ballpark numbers that you can work into your customer-review strategy:

  • If you’d like to get into the Google Places top-7, you should probably try to get at least 5 customer to write reviews on at least one third-party site.
  • Or if you’re already in the local top-7 and trying to get to the very top, your strategy should include getting at least 30-100% more customer reviews on third-party sites than the other top-7 businesses have.  In terms of reviews, there’s a big gap between #1 and #7.

 

“So how should I change my reviews strategy?”

Time for a recap.  Use the following as rules-of-thumb as you move forward:

1.  Don’t just focus on Google Places reviews; ask customers to review you elsewhere, too

2.  There’s a correspondence between your ranking and how many third-party sites you’re reviews on.  You’ll probably need reviews on one such site in order to get into the top-7.  But the more different third-party sites your customers can review you on, the better

3.  There’s also a correspondence between your ranking and how many total third-party reviews you have.  Ranking in the top-2 will probably require that you get 30-100% more customer reviews than your page-one local competitors have.

4.  If you’re trying to get into the Google Places top-7, a good initial benchmark is to get at least 5 customer reviews on at least one third-party site (SuperPages, CitySearch, etc.

5.  If you want to climb higher in the Google Places 7-pack, shoot for a total of about 8 reviews on at least 2 different third-party sites

By the way, you can download my spreadsheet with all the data, in case you’d like to roll up your sleeves and handle some numbers.

Of course, I’d appreciate your weighing in—leave a comment!