“Some of My Google+ Reviews Just Got Filtered. What Should I Ask My Customers to Do?”

One of my oldest clients asked me that question the other day.  He had dozens and dozens of Google+ Local reviews that he earned over the months.  3-4 of them got filtered after living happily on his page for several weeks.

He then asked, “Should I just ask customers to repost their reviews on Google+?”

I said, “Take it easy, Rambo.”

Then I suggested an action plan:

It’s true that Google’s filters aren’t as tough as they used to be, but they still do filter reviews (as we’ve seen).   If Google sees customers re-post the same reviews that got filtered, that looks weird.

It also looks weird if a customer isn’t a frequent reviewer on Google+, and posts one review, and that review gets filtered, and he/she posts another review of the same place.

Here’s all you can do: if those 3-4 reviewers have written reviews of other businesses besides yours, it’s probably OK to ask them to post another review on Google+, provided that they rewrite it rather than post the same thing.  But if your business is the only one they’ve reviewed, don’t ask them to review you on Google+ again.  Ask them to write a review elsewhere.

What do you suggest asking customers to do if they’re still willing to write a review after their first one gets filtered?  Leave a comment!

3 Nimble Moves for Local-Review Ninjas

It pains me to say this, but these review-encouragement ideas aren’t mine: Other people told me (or reminded me) about them recently.

We’ve walked step-by-step through what your strategy should be.  We’ve looked at which review sites you should focus on.  I’ve even breathed down your neck to keep you motivated.

But maybe you’ve got the basics covered and want some next-level ideas – ways to get more out of your current efforts to get reviews.  I’ve got 3 of those for you.

They’re “advanced,” but they’re not hard.  You can work them into your current strategy quickly and almost invisibly (without having to change your strategy).  That’s why I call them “ninja moves.”

Ninja Move 1: Feature your Google+ reviews in posts on your local page.

Darren mentioned the Blue Plate Diner in Edmonton in a recent comment, at which point I noticed the review they showcased in their “posts” stream.

This is a subtle way to encourage any customers who see your “posts” stream to write you a review.  But it’s more important as a way to broadcast your existing reviews a little more.

It’s also wise to showcase your reviews in your posts because anyone who clicks on the link to your Google+ page in the main search results will be taken straight to the “posts” tab of your page.

How do you feature a review in a post?

Assuming you’ve got the “upgraded” type of Google+ Local page, you first go to the “About” tab on your page and find a review you’d like to share.

Let’s use my poor, neglected local page as an example, and let’s look at the overly generous review by Angela Wright MBE.

If I were smart, I’d click the “share this review” arrow, and put the review in my “posts” stream.  That’s it.

Oh, and in the post you’ll want to thank your reviewer, as Blue Plate Diner wisely did.

 

Ninja Move 2: Hard-laminate any printed instructions you give to potential reviewers.

“But lamination is expensive.”

“I don’t have time.”

“I don’t have a laminator.”

“Why can’t I just email customers to ask for a review?”

“Get with the times, Phil.  If it’s not an app people don’t use it.”

Phooey.

Texas dentist Mike Freeman told me about this approach, and it’s brilliant.  Simply laminate whatever paper instructions you use to show your customers, clients, or patients how to leave you a review.

(Dr. Freeman ordered my battle-tested Google+ review handout, but you can laminate whatever instructions you like.)

You don’t need to laminate hundreds of copies of whatever instructions you use.  Try it with a few and see what happens.

The lamination accomplishes three things: (1) it makes the instructions hard to crumple up or fold up, (2) it makes them harder to lose in the sea of papers and bills on the kitchen table, and (3) it makes your request seem better-planned-out and more sincere.

It may be a professional touch, but it’s not expensive.  As Dr. Freeman told me:

“Laminators can be purchased on Amazon for roughly $30 and the plastic pouches cost about $20 for a pack of 100. A very low investment on what could potentially help a small business gain a lot of reviews.”

 

Ninja Move 3: Use Yelp’s “Find Friends” feature to identify active Yelpers.

This is another stick of Darren dynamite (see this and this).  As he, I, and others have written, the big factor that determines whether Yelp reviews get filtered is how active the reviewers are.  Anything written by a first-time reviewer probably won’t see the light of day.

So how do you find customers who at least already have Yelp accounts?  Log into your Yelp account and go to go the “Find Friends” area (https://www.yelp.com/find_friends/address_book).

This feature won’t help you much if you have no contact with your customers – by email or on Facebook.  But if you don’t have any means of reaching them, you’ve got bigger problems than reviews.

Yelp doesn’t want you even to ask for reviews.  I’m not alone when I say that’s a stupid rule, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.  What you do with any “active” Yelper-customers is up to you.  This is just the best way to identify those people.

Have you tried any of the above?  How’s it worked out?

What are some “ninja” review moves that have worked for you?

Leave a comment!

Google Testing Review-Sentiment Snippets in the Local Knowledge Graph

For the first time, I’ve just seen “review sentiment” from Google Plus reviews in the local knowledge graph for brand-name searches.  In English:

As you can see, those “sentiment” blobs are the conclusions that Google draws about a business by looking at its Google Plus reviews.  They show up on the right-hand side of the search results when you search for that business by name.  Obviously, it requires that the business have a certain number of reviews.

This seems to be the love-child of a couple pieces of the local results that Google has been doodling around with for some time: the knowledge graph off to the right of the local results, and the “At a glance” snippets that show up on the Google+ Local page.

There might also be some DNA from the third-party review snippets that disappeared almost 3 years ago.  Let’s go on The Maury Show.

I saw this a few minutes ago for a couple businesses.  I haven’t been able to replicate it.  I’m probably in one of Google’s test buckets.

Something tells me this isn’t the last time those review snippets will show up there.  Google pushed reviews very hard in 2013.  I’m guessing this is just the first leg of the continued march in 2014.

Comparison of Local Review Sites: Where Should You Focus Now?

You only have so many customers.  Many of them are probably happy to write you a review online (especially if it’s as easy as possible).  So where should you encourage them to go to post reviews of your business?

If you think the obvious answer is “Oh, I’ll just steer everyone to Yelp and Google+” then you thought wrong.  Those sites have review filters that can be pretty paranoid.  Yelp even has a policy against asking for a review.  Also, some of your customers simply may not want to use those sites, for one reason or another.

Then there’s what I and other local SEOs have experienced: that getting reviews on a diversity of sites can be a big help to your local rankings.

How to pick which review sites might be good to weave into your review-encouragement campaign?  I’ve put together this comparison chart to help you figure that out:

(click to enlarge)

There are other good review sites out there, but I focused on the big sites that aren’t specific to any one industry (like YellowPages) and a handful of the big sites that are specific to a particular industry or family of industries (like HealthGrades).  I also focused on US sites, as you can tell (although Google+, Yelp, and TripAdvisor aren’t US-specific).

I hope everything made sense at first glance, but in case not, here’s some explanation of each of the columns and headers:

 

 

 

A review is not a review.  Some give you more local visibility per-review than others.  How?  In 5 different ways (that I can think of).

Avg. rankings for broad searches
When you type in any given local search term – “dentists Dallas” or “roofing repair in Tampa” or “jewelry” or “estate attorneys” – you’re probably going to see at least a few directory/review sites in Google’s search results.

Some of these sites always seem to rank highly – and if potential customers click through to those sites, you’re either visible or you’re not.  If you have reviews on those sites, you’re building yourself some nice extra visibility.

Avg. rankings for brand-name searches
What do you see when you search for your business by name?  You’ll probably see a page or two of your site, your Google+ Local listing, maybe Facebook page – and several other sites where you’re listed.

You need reviews on at least some of those sites.

Why?  Because many of your potential customers aren’t just picking you out of a hat in the local search results: They’ll find you and your competitors in the local rankings, and then Google your names to see the “dirt” on you.  For that matter, maybe they didn’t even find you online originally: maybe they got your name from a friend and just want to learn more about you.  The bottom line is that if potential customers like what they see – particularly the reviews – they may just give you a ring.

Review stars in SERPs
As you can see, some sites make their reviews “pop” out in the search results (by using rich snippets).

You want reviews on those sites.  The nice thing is that most of them only require one review to have your “stars” show up in the search results.  (The exception is Google+ Local, which requires a minimum of 5 or sometimes 4 reviews for you to get the stars.)

Feeds reviews to other sites
You’ll need to have seen my Local Reviews Ecosystem post in order to absorb this one.

Feeds to Bing Places
There’s no such thing as a “Bing review” anymore.  The reviews that show up in Bing’s local results come from other sources: Yelp, CitySearch, InsiderPages, and TripAdvisor.

 

 

 

Besides their visibility in Google and on other sites, there are other ways some types of reviews can benefit you.

Top reviewers
Yelp has the “Elite Squad.”  Google has the “City Experts” program, and also gives “Top reviewer” status to other people who write lots of Google Plus reviews.  A couple other sites have equivalent titles for their most-influential reviewers.  Reviews from these sorts of people can help your visibility in all sorts of indirect ways – and they may have some direct effect on your rankings.

Allows owner responses
Can you thank a customer who puts in a good word?  Can you address gripes from less-happy customers?  Depends on the site.

Badges offered
Some sites have badges or buttons that you can use to draw attention to your reviews – to tell customers to check out your reviews on those sites.  Pro tip: because these badges will link to your reviews page on a given site, make sure those links open up into a new browser tab.  You don’t want people leaving your site to check out your reviews.

 

 

 

It won’t necessarily be easy to get reviews on the sites where you need them.  Nor can you assume it will be tough to get reviews on sites where you might actually benefit a lot from having a few.  You need to know where the banana peels are.

Does not use automated filters
Sorry for the double-negative here, but as you can see on the comparison chart, I wanted “green thumbs-up = good” across the board 🙂  But this one’s real simple: Yelp and Google+ filter reviews.  Yelp’s filter is harsher than Google’s filter.  TripAdvisor may filter reviews automatically, but I couldn’t tell for certain.

Facebook logins accepted
Some sites don’t require customers to create logins (e.g. a CitySearch username) just to write a review.  They let customers use their Facebook usernames.  Not only does that eliminate a step for your customers, but it also presents an opportunity for you if you interact a lot with your customers on Facebook and might use it as a way to reach out for reviews.

By the way, Yahoo also lets people use their Google logins, and  Angie’s List lets customers use their Facebook, Google, and Yahoo usernames to post reviews.  Talk about greasing the skids.

Policy allows asking for reviews
Self-explanatory, except that Yelp is actually the only Grinch site that sees reviews as a taboo subject for an honest business owner and a customer.  Google is murky on this one.  Angie’s List actually wants you to ask customers.  HealthGrades will ship you customized cards to give patients.

—-

By the way, here are a couple great old posts that bit off pieces of the “which review sites should I pick” question:

Mike Blumenthal’s “Which Review Sites Should You Use?” (2010)

Miriam Ellis’s “Edit, Remove and Respond To Reviews – Tools For Conflict Resolution” (2009)

Huge thanks to David Deering of Touch Point Digital Marketing in New Orleans for making my comparison chart not only presentable, but pretty as a peach.  I highly recommend his services.

Questions?  What’s your SWOT analysis of your reviews profile after looking at the comparison chart?  Leave a comment!

12 Reasons Google’s "City Experts" Reviews Program Sucks

Well, what I mean to say is that it’s going to suck.  What I suspect will be the short life of Google’s latest program has barely begun.

Google’s “City Experts” Google+ reviews program is essentially Google’s version of Yelp’s “Elite Squad.”

(For more detail, read this excellent piece in TechCrunch and this even-better write-up by Greg Sterling.  And if you want the “official” line, see the G+ post.)

The program has only rolled out to a few cities.  Normally I’d be miffed at Google for not including Boston in a rollout, but in this case I’m not too cracked-up.

Why?  Because I think City Experts will be either a quiet little misfire or go up in a blaze of glory before being discontinued not too far in the future.

I see at least 12 problems:

 

Problem 1.  The quotas.  You have to write 50 Google+ reviews to become a City Expert, and 5 reviews every month subsequently in order to keep your standing.  Not only does that tell me and everyone else that Google values quantity over quality, but it also creates an unnatural pressure to review X number of businesses within Y number of days.  To paraphrase Google’s review guidelines, that’s a “conflict of interest.”  At least Yelp’s criteria for becoming a member of the Elite Squad boil down to “we know it when we see it” (their words, not mine).

Problem 2.  It will be abused by marketers.  They’ll post reviews of their clients, and perhaps negative reviews of their clients’ competitors.  What’s to prevent that from happening?

Problem 3.  It will be abused by business owners.  Too many of them already cut corners to get Google Plus (and other) reviews.  What do you think happens when Google raises the stakes?

Problem 4.  It will be abused by unethical reviewers.  Pretty soon we’re going to catch City Experts offering reviews on Fiverr.com.

Also, will their reviews be subject to Google’s review filter?  Elite Yelpers’ reviews aren’t filtered.  But, then again, Elite Yelpers are vetted by other humans.  It’s not clear to me whether that will be the case with Google.

Speaking of unclear parts of the program, it’s unclear to me whether “City Expert” = “Top Reviewer.”  If so, then that means their reviews will pull a lot of weight in the “new Maps” rankings, when the searcher chooses to sort search results by reviews.

Problem 5.  It will be abused even by generally well-meaning reviewers.  Why?  Because there’s no rule that says you need to be a real customer of a business in order to review it.  There no such rule on Yelp, but Yelp doesn’t specify a 5-monthly-reviews quota.  What we’re going to see is some City Experts running out of businesses where they’ve actually spent money, but needing to write reviews anyway.  So they’ll reviews businesses where they’ve never been customers, just because it’s the 29th of the month and they have two reviews to write – or else they’ll lose their “title” and free swag.

Problem 6.  Google will need more of a support or conflict-resolution system to deal with the possible problems I just mentioned.  Without it, the waters will be muddied for everyone.  Users/customers won’t see the City Experts’ reviews as credible, and reviewers won’t put in the time to earn a distinction that isn’t distinguished.

Problem 7.  There’s going to be no sheriff.  Nobody will really be in charge.  It will be just like Google+ Local.  At most Google will get some well-meaning but callow intern to try to oversee the program.  Google’s all about algorithms…remember?

Problem 8.  The reviewers themselves may get confronted by business owners, especially if there’s nobody at Google to take some of the heat.  Their reviews are tied to Plus accounts, which generally have more and more-detailed personal information than the average Yelp Elites’ profiles do.

High-visibility reviews + potentially angry business owners + relatively low privacy for reviewers + no conflict-resolution mechanisms at Google = big mess.

Problem 9.  The fact that photos are required creates a bias in favor of bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Speaking of photos, what will be done about ugly or inaccurate or promotional or fake photos?  Will Google examine those in any way, or will this be another Wild West situation?  What if Anthony Weiner wants to become New York’s City Expert?

Problem 10.  Greg Sterling brought up an excellent point: what will happen to duplicate or near-duplicate reviews?

I suspect some of the Yelp Elites might join and duplicate their reviews on Google. Will Yelp penalize them if that does happen?

I’m wondering the same thing, and I also want to know what Google will do about duplicates.  The review guidelines specify that Google “may…remove reviews that include plagiarism or are copied from other sites.”

Problem 11.  How do we know Google won’t sunset the program in 6 months?  Google has a track record of euthanizing its products, both good and bad.  Anyone who pays attention to Google+ knows that, and must be at least a little concerned that his/her reviews eventually will lose their “Expert” stickers and become as inconspicuous as everyone else’s reviews.

Problem 12.  Google won’t be able to make it “cool” enough to catch on.  City Experts are Yelp Elite manqué.  At the moment, the program is too much like Yelp’s program to be anything more than an also-ran.  It needs to be different, or it will play second fiddle.  My educated guess is that City Experts will be retired or rolled into another Google property, sooner or later (probably sooner).

I hope I’m wrong about the future of the City Experts reviews program.  Not many people have been beating the “get Google reviews – ethically!” drum as hard as I have.  Few things make me happier than when clients tell me that the Google reviews we worked to earn helped them attract new customers.  So, suffice it to say, I like Google reviews.  I rant because I care.

It would be cool if the program is problem-free enough to be around for long enough that it becomes rewarding to honest business owners and to searchers.

If you’re a business owner, my advice is: if you’re already getting reviews on Google+ and (ideally) on other reviews sites, don’t change your strategy because of the City Experts program.  If it’s around for long enough to matter, then sooner or later you’ll get reviews from those chosen few just by doing what’s worked for you so far.

Authorship Photo Next to Google’s Own Search Results: Dogfooding or Bug?

I just saw something weird in the search results:

Weird, huh?  I’ve never seen authorship photos appear next to any search results for Google’s pages.

I’m even more stumped why the authorship photo is of a guy who seems not to be affiliated with Google.  Granted, +Matthew Rappaport is a power user and knows his way around a Hangout.  But if anyone’s photo were to show up in the search results for Google’s properties, I’d expect it to be of Matt Cutts’s smiling visage, or maybe a photo of whomever has the corner office in the Local/Maps department these days.

I’m also seeing the same authorship photo in the results when I type in “Google local support,” “Google + Local,” and other terms.

Is Google wetting its beak in its own authorship action?  Is it just a bug?

What are you seeing?  Am I missing something obvious?  Any ideas as to what’s going on here?

The Full List of Google Local Business Listing Crimes

Google’s rules for local business listings are notoriously and unnecessarily confusing.  Always have been.  All the more so now, given that some business owners have to know and follow both the guidelines for Google Places and for Google Plus.

You can learn the rules by reading them, or in the School of Hard Knocks.  But even the former isn’t as simple as it sounds: Google’s guidelines change frequently, they’re not all on one page, and different types of businesses have to follow different sets of rules.

So I’ve rounded up every single violation – or “crime” – that can get your Google listing dinged or whisked off the map.  Some of them are clearly stated in Google’s sundry rules, but others aren’t.  Some of these are harder to atone for than others.

You still should read Google’s “quality guidelines.”  This is just meant to be a quick but comprehensive list of all the no-nos.   Think of it as an anti-checklist.

 

Violations common to Google Places and Google Plus business pages

(You need to follow these no matter what, regardless of whether you have an “upgraded” Google+Local page.  Here’s more info on the difference between the two types of pages.  Thanks to the ever-astute Nyagoslav Zhekov for helping me make these rules as clear as possible.)

“Business name” field

  • Including “keywords” that aren’t part of your official business name
  • Including city names that aren’t part of your official business name
  • Including slogans
  • Including a URL (unless the official business name is “example.com”)
  • Including a phone number
  • Including banned words – unless they are officially part of the business name

1st “Address” field

  • Entering an address other than the one in which your business is located
  • Entering a PO Box, UPS box, or other fake address
  • Mentioning landmarks
  • Mentioning buildings in which your business is located (e.g. a mall); do this in the 2nd “Address” field

2nd “Address” field

  • Inserting city names

“City” field

  • Including anything but the city in which your business is physically located
  • Including more than one city (even if you’re on a city line)

“Phone” field

  • Using a toll-free number, unless it is your main phone number
  • Entering additional phone numbers; click the “Add more phone numbers” link if you’d like to enter alternate numbers

“Website” field

  • Entering a domain that forwards to another domain
  • Entering a shortened URL

“Description” field

“Fix incorrect marker location” option

  • Moving the marker to a place on the map other than where you’re physically located
  • Moving the marker (even a little) closer to the center of your city

Other

  • Creating more than one listing for the same business (don’t try to “fool” Google with different DBAs, slightly different addresses, etc.)

 

Violations specific to the Google Places “Dashboard”

(You also need to follow these rules regardless of whether you have an “upgraded” page, but because Google is transitioning away from the Google Places “dashboard” and toward Google+, these rules may become obsolete pretty soon.)

“Category” fields

  • Specifying custom categories that describe your services rather than your business itself (e.g. “Cosmetic Dentistry = bad, “Cosmetic Dentist” = good)
  • Including more than one search-phrase in custom categories (e.g. “Cosmetic and Sedation and Implant Dentistry” = bad)
  • Including city names in custom categories

Service area & location settings

  • Not “hiding” your address IF you travel to where your customers are located, rather than the other way around.  (More detail here)

“Photos” and “Videos” areas

 

Violations specific to Google Plus “Local Business” pages

(You only need to follow these if you have an “upgraded” Google+Local page.)

“Description” field

  • Including too many keywords
  • Including too many links, or too much keyword-rich / exact-match anchor text

“Photos” and “Videos” areas

By the way, those aren’t even all the things that can hurt your rankings; just infractions that won’t even give you a chance at those rankings.

I was thinking of calling this post “The Wrath of Google.”

Google’s rules are a hard reality – even more so than Khan’s genetically-engineered pecs.  If you don’t know and follow the rules, you may not be a happy camper later.

Are there any rules I missed?  Any stories you’d like to relate about the Wrath of Google?  Leave a comment!

The Complete Guide to Google+ Local Reviews – and Especially How to Get Them

Boggled by Google reviews?

Google+ reviews can be tough to get, and tough for customers to leave for you.  Google sure doesn’t make the process as easy as it could be.

But if you really want to attract more customers through the local search results, you need to get Google reviews from current and past customers.

That’s why I’ve written this.   There are business owners who know Google reviews are important, who want to follow Google’s rules, but who just can’t get any or many reviews from customers, for one reason or another.  If you’re one of those people, this post is for you.

I’ve helped a lot of business owners get reviews, and I’ve seen many review-gathering efforts fail (and yes, I’ve had a hand in a few of those efforts, too).

This post contains everything I know about Google+ Local reviews.

Not only does it contain everything I’ve learned (that I can remember), but it will also include everything I learn from now on.  This is an evergreen post.  So I’ll update and tweak it over time, as Google’s review system evolves.

I’ve split it up into 6 sections:

The basics you must know about Google reviews

What most business owners don’t know (but should)

Best-practices for requesting reviews

Hard-learned lessons

Examples of requests/instructions for writing a Google review

Resources

Or you can start right from the top:

The basics you must know about Google reviews

  • YOU need to read and understand Google’s guidelines for reviews, as does anyone in your company who helps you ask customers for reviews.  It takes a couple minutes to read them.  They’re reasonably clear.  If you have questions, you can ask me.  But just read and follow the rules.  Taking a couple minutes to do so can save you from serious heartache.
  • You need to know what Google reviews look like in the main search results and in the “local carousel.”

  • Reviews as a whole are one ranking factor of many.  A competitor with no reviews or awful reviews may outrank you.  But rankings are secondary: The real point of reviews is to give people a reason to click on your listing and then to pick up the phone or visit your website.  A #1 ranking for a business with no reviews is a missed opportunity.
  • Reviews can only be written on Google+ Local business pages, not on personal or on non-local-business Google+ page (more detail here).  >If your page has the little “pencil” button near the top of the page, customers can write a review of your business on that page.

  • Yes, customers must have Google+ accounts in order to write a review.  Having a Gmail account isn’t enough (it needs to be “upgraded” to a Google+ account).  That also means they can’t leave anonymous reviews; they need to be under customers’ real names.  But if you see a review that is anonymous – that says from “A Google User” – then that means it was written before May 30, 2012 (when Google started requiring people to have Google+ accounts to write reviews and to have their names on reviews they’d written in the past).
  • Customers need to post the reviews themselves, through their Google+ accounts.  It’s not OK with Google if you transcribe and then post the kind words a customer has lovingly sent to you in a perfumed letter – even if it’s fine with your customer.
  • Google has “filters” that are meant to prevent spammy or shill reviews from being posted.  But, like many other things Google has created, it only halfway works at the moment (and sometimes fails spectacularly).  It’s slowly getting better, but a lot of garbage reviews still make it through, while too many legit reviews still get filtered.
  • A few of the factors that matter to the “review filter” seem to be: whether customers try to post reviews at an unnatural pace, how many reviews a given person has written previously, the wording of the review, and the user’s location (IP address).  We don’t know exactly what factors Google’s review filters consider, or which matter the most.  But the main thing you need to know is that Google has the facts on your business’s review-gathering activity and each customer’s review-posting behavior – and Google can take all of it into account when deciding which reviews to toss versus keep.  (For more on how to keep your reviews out of the filter, see my checklist.)
  • There are several ways to navigate to your Google+ Local listing on a desktop, laptop, or tablet: People can perform a normal search in Google, they can go through the “Maps” tab, or they can use the two search boxes in Plus.Google.com.  There is no one “right” way.  You just have to find out from your customers what they find easiest.  I’ve found that the easiest is to have customers search for your listing from within Plus.Google.com (once they’ve signed in or created their Plus account), because that’s where they’ll end up anyway to review you.

  • iPhone/iOS users need the Google Maps app to write a review, and they must navigate to your listing through the app.  Even if they have the app, they won’t see the “Write a review” button on your Google+ Local listing if they navigate to it through their mobile browsers or by scanning a QR code.
  • Customers can leave ratings without actually writing a review.  The rating is just the “stars” without the text of a review.  Some people will do this, and although it won’t hurt you, you shouldn’t encourage it.  You want potential customers and Google to have the benefit of reading at least a couple lines on your business and on what makes you better than the next guy or gal.

  • Your customers’ “friends” – the people in their Google+ “Circles” – may see you in their personalized search results as a result of your customers’ reviews.  To the extent your customers’ friends live or work near you, you’re probably reaching a few more potential customers.
  • Google doesn’t set a minimum or maximum word count on reviews.  They can be as long or as short as your customers would like.  Nor have I found that Google is more likely to filter out one length of review.  My rule of thumb is that one small paragraph is a great length for a review.
  • Customers don’t have to have their photo show up next to their reviews, if they don’t want theirs to; if they don’t add a photo to their Google+ profiles, none will show next to their reviews.

  • Google has rules against cross-posting – that is, copying a Google review and pasting it onto your website or onto another review site (e.g. CitySearch).  If you try to build a clone army out of your Google review, it may be removed, and your clone army will wander around without a Fearless Leader.

  • Google is constantly changing.  Its policies, its staff, and its technology.  The difficulties in getting reviews change from year to year.  The only way to make it pay off long-term is to know and follow Google’s rules and to spend a few minutes every now and then reading up where you can (as you’re doing now).


What most business owners don’t know (but should)

  • You shouldn’t focus solely on Google+ Local.  You need reviews on a diversity of sites.  Give people options, and don’t push everyone toward the same site.
  • I’ve always found that reviews are a huge boost to your Google+ Local rankings, but the rankings benefit probably is more indirect than direct.
  • At least in terms of rankings, the number of reviews you have seems to matter more than the quality of those reviews (i.e. whether your average “Zagat” rating is 9/30 or 29/30).

  • If you see a review you don’t like – on your page or on a competitor’s – pretty much all you can do is flag the review and report it to Google.  The review may be a pack of lies, but there are not (as far as I know) human editors to whom you can appeal.  There is no Supreme Court here.  Google won’t grant exceptions (again, as far as I know).

  • Google seems more likely to filter the reviews of businesses in certain industries than in others – particularly car dealerships and (in my experience) businesses that travel to customers.
  • Reviews can vanish and then return.  They never seem to go away for good.  For instance, sometimes Google will temporarily lose many or all of your reviews – but then they might show up on your page again a few days later.  Google seems to mothball them away, rather than snuff them out completely.
  • On the flipside, your reviews are never “safe.”  They can be thrown out even after having been on your Google listing for years.  This means, for one thing, that you should not focus exclusively on Google reviews.  It also means that if you cut corners in any way – which you shouldn’t do in the first place – even reviews that don’t get filtered may get the axe later.
  • There’s no “reputation-management” service that can ensure your customers’ reviews won’t get filtered by Google.  Anyone who claims “We’ll get reviews from your customers and make sure they show up on Google” is lying.  There is no such trusted source that would allow Google’s little Algorithm Elves to say “Yep yep, another one from 5StarzGuaranteed.biz, let it on through…keep ‘em coming, you slackers!”
  • Probably the worst thing about duplicate Google+ Local listings is that they can split up your reviews.  In terms of your review “health,” two listings will weaken each other like Siamese twins.  If you have 10 customer reviews and 2 identical or near-identical Google listings, it might be the case that one listing has 6 of the reviews and the other has 4.  It’s better for all your reviews to be marshaled behind one listing that would get all the rankings benefit of those reviews, rather than have two listings that sorta-kinda benefit from a smaller number of reviews.  Also, with multiple listings, it’s harder to create a “wow” effect in the eyes of potential customers than if you had one listing with a ton of Google reviews.
  • Google extracts the little “At a glance” snippets come largely from what customers write in your Google reviews.

  • It’s possible to have an “average rating” that’s slightly lower than 5.0 even if you have nothing but 5-star reviews.  (See this great comment by Mike Blumenthal on a post I did.)
  • Google seems to mothball reviews.  They don’t disappear forever – even if they’ve been filtered before ever making it onto your Google+ Local page publicly, or if they’ve been on your page for a while and then thrown out post facto, or if Google has accidentally “stuck” your reviews on another business’s listing.
  • You can’t copy and paste your Google reviews and put them on your website, but you can take a screenshot of them and put the screenshot on your site, if you were so inclined.  It’s also fine to link to your Google+ Local page from your website, but because you don’t want to shuttle people off of your website once they’re there, at least have the link open in a new browser tab.
  • There are “Top Reviewers,” whose reviews Google “trusts” more than those of other people.  Reviews by these people may help your rankings more than will reviews by other people.
  • Businesses can review each other.  This can be a good way to scare up some more reviews.  David Mihm has talked about this strategy ever since it became possible, and it’s a smart one.  (You can see a real-life example of this in a comment on a post of mine from last year, courtesy of Eric Marshall of ZCreative.)
  • A review is not the final word.  You can and should write responses to the reviews, both good and bad.  When appropriate, you also can and should get in touch with customers who may have written a harsh review and simply ask – if it’s not clear to you already – exactly how you can improve.  Don’t ask for them to delete or change their reviews; just ask for feedback.  Many people (like me) respect and are impressed by that sort of thing.  )There’s also maybe a 10% chance they’ll edit or take down their review spontaneously.


Best-practices for requesting reviews

  • Ask everyone for a review, not just your diehard, happiest customers.  Asking for a review should be like handing out your business card: something you do impulsively, almost without thinking.  Doing it in fits and starts doesn’t work.  You need to ask a constant stream of customers on an ongoing basis  – never too many or too few at one time.  Otherwise, Google and other sites may filter lots of your reviews, and (worse) getting reviews will just become another nagging to-do item that you’ll only get to when you “have time.”
  • Don’t insist that people write you a review on Google+ Local, to the exclusion of other sites.  Convey to your customers that although you always like Google reviews, it’s great if there’s another site they’d prefer to review you on.  This gets back to my earlier point about how you need reviews on a diversity of sites.  Asking about 50% of your customers for Google reviews is a solid policy, in my experience.
  • Point out as often as possible that you’d like your customers’ honest feedback.  Having perfect 30/30 ratings is nice, but sometimes it can look fishy – to Google and (more importantly) to potential customers.  You can use reviews as a way to look perfect when you’re not, or you can use them as an opportunity to learn about where you can improve.  Your choice.
  • Don’t tell people to leave a specific rating (e.g. “Excellent” – which is the equivalent of what used to be 5 stars).  I understand the temptation.  But most people are generous spirits, whom you won’t have to grease up in order to elicit a good word.  And if they’re not raving fans, there’s a good chance they’ll say why they aren’t – which means an opportunity for you to up your game.
  • Don’t ask a bunch of customers at once to post reviews.  It should be as close to real-time as possible – right after the “transaction” (for lack of a better word).
  • Expect a few lukewarm reviews or stinkers (or both).  They’re inevitable.  Even if they weren’t, getting a few harsh reviews is a small price to pay for getting your biggest fans to speak up.
  • Don’t urge customers to use a specific device (e.g. smartphone) to post reviews.  They can and should use whatever works best for them.
  • Do not tell customers what to say in their reviews.  Just let them know that although more detail is always great, short reviews are also OK.  And don’t tell them to mention certain keywords.  That very well could backfire and leave you with filtered reviews.
  • Don’t incentivize.  Not only is it against the rules, but makes you look as though you’re desperate. (Maybe you are desperate, but at least don’t show it blatantly.)  Worst of all, it actually can rub some people the wrong way.  Many people like feeling as though they’re granting a favor to someone, and would prefer not to feel like their words are being bought.  (This ties in with a great talk by Dan Pink – not to mention one of his books, Drive.)
  • Don’t get greedy and insist that any one customer review you on more than one site.  For one thing, you don’t want that person to reuse the review he/she wrote you on Google+ Local and use it somewhere else, or vice versa.  You also don’t want reviewing you to seem like a big, multi-step chore.  If a customer wants to, that’s awesome.  You both must be happy.  But don’t push it.
  • Get a general sense of how many Google+ Local reviews your local competitors have, and how often they seem to get them from customers.  That gives you a sense of what the “bar” is in your local market, and the extent to which reviews are even a differentiating factor between you and your competitors: Businesses in some industries just don’t get reviews, for one reason or another.  Don’t bust your butt to get 2 reviews each week if your competitors only get 2 reviews a year.
  • When possible, try not to give customers the direct link to your Google+ Local page.  Google most likely knows the referring URL – the page your customers were on before they came to your business’s listing.  It’s also likely that Google will start filtering some reviews if it looks as though nobody’s writing them spontaneously and as though you’re pressuring them.

  • Do NOT delegate the requesting of the reviews to someone out-of-house.  It’s fine if your employee or receptionist does it, but it’s best for the head honcho to be the one to ask.
  • Respond to reviews – and not just the negative ones.  You don’t want it to seem as though the only way to get your attention is to slam you.
  • You should ask customers for reviews using several different media.  Not just verbal, not just email, not just my handouts.  Test out which ones seem to work best, and use those.  (Notice how I used the plural – “ones” and “those”?) Some excellent tools are GetFiveStars, Grade.us, and BrightLocal’s ReviewBiz.
  • If you’re shy about asking for a review verbally, it might help to have some printed request and/or instructions. Even if it’s a worthless prop, it helps to have a show-and-tell piece. It can do a little of the work in explaining what it is you’re asking for. And it can take your customers’ eyes off of you for a second – which is a relief if you feel as though they’re staring holes into the back of your skull while you’re trying to explain what a Google+ Local page is and why you’d like a review there. You could probably do this by whipping out your phone, too. Whatever you like. Physical doo-dads make us feel less awkward; that’s at least one reason there are drinks at parties, and I’m guessing that’s at least one reason the podium was invented for speakers. Figure out what makes you feel less shy – but if you use shyness as a reason not to ask for reviews, the loss is yours.
  • You need a backup plan for situations in which customers try to write you a Google review but they get filtered out for no apparent reason.  If they’re willing to review you elsewhere, great.  But if not, be sure to say that it’s OK for them to add your business to “Circles,” or to write down a testimonial that they wouldn’t mind your posting on your site.
  • Know how to tell whether a review has been filtered.  A customer’s review has been filtered if he/she is signed into Google and can see it on your Google+ Local page but neither you nor anyone else can see it on your Google page.
  • Do not stop asking for reviews.  Ever.  Even if Google throws out some (or all) of your reviews for whatever reason, try to figure out why they might be getting filtered.  But keep grinding away.


Hard-learned lessons

  • You will not bat .1000.  Probably not even .500.  Not everyone you ask will remember or bother to write you a review.  Some who try will have their reviews filtered.  Some who try and succeed will write a review you don’t like.  But so what?  You’ve built a business.  That’s much tougher than pulling together some reviews.  Granted, it’s tough – but so is everything else that’s worth your time and effort.  You can do it.
  • Beware of what I call the “kitchen table effect” – where your request for a review sits on the place where your customers sometimes eat dinner with their families but more frequently pay bills and pile junk mail.  Some people will need to be asked more than once to review you.  And it’s OK for you to ask them more than once – just to remind them in a friendly, oblique way.  Even that won’t always work, but sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Some (or many) first-time reviewers’ reviews will get gobbled by Google’s anti-spam K9 unit.  There’s not much you can do about this, other than (1) to avoid asking a bunch of customers at once for a review, (2) to encourage honest reviews over unnaturally glowing reviews, and (3) to let customers know that their reviews don’t have to be of a certain length.  (More tips here.)
  • If you’re giving instructions to people who don’t have Google+ accounts, don’t tell them first to find your Google+ Local listing and then to sign up for a Plus account. It’s usually much easier the other way around. Some people say to me, “But Phil, if you just type our name into Google, our listing is right at the top. Isn’t that the easiest way to find our page?” To which I reply “Yes, but if some of your customers don’t have Google+ accounts, they’ll be prompted to create one and will have to search for your listing a second time before they can review you.” The other issue is Google sometimes won’t show your Google+ Local listing at the very top of the search results, even if you search for it by name. Google often reshuffles the rankings. An easy way to find your listing today might not be as easy tomorrow. The bottom line is you should only ask customers to go to your Google page after they’ve got a Plus account.
  • Save each review in two ways: (1) copy and paste the text of each review into a document that you’ll be able to dig up easily later, and (2) take a screenshot of each review a customer has left on your page.  You do NOT – and never will – “own” your Google reviews.  But at least this way you post them as testimonials on your website if it comes to pass that your reviews get filtered and you’re convinced they’re not coming back.

  • Your customers care.  Not all of them, sure.  But that’s OK.  Many will write a review if you ask and if you maybe give them basic instructions as to how.  Don’t assume that you have to wave a Starbucks card in their faces in order for them to do good deed.
  • Review-gathering can (and should) serve as a mini-diagnostic of your entire business and your practices.  For instance, if all your customers say they’d be happy to write you a review but none follows through, that might tell you that your customers don’t have as close a working relationship with you as they should.  Or if you’re consistently at 4 stars, and nobody’s angry with your service but nobody loves it, that might tell you something else.  Your reviews don’t just tell potential customers about your business; they can tell you about your business.


Examples of requests/instructions for writing a Google review:

A great video by Susan Walsh of ElSue.com:

From BarbaraOliverandCo.com (Mike Blumenthal’s flagship client):

From Yours Truly (click image to see full PDF):

(By the way, I can custom-make a review handout (like the above) for your business.)

Resources

Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews – Mike Blumenthal

Checklist for Keeping Google+Reviews out of the Filter – me

Asking for Reviews (Post Google Apocalypse) – Mike Blumenthal

A Way to Avoid the Google + Local Review Spam Filter? – Joy Hawkins

8 Ways to Recognize Fake Google Reviews – Nyagoslav Zhekov

The Coolest +Local Feature No One’s Noticed? – David Mihm

The Afterlives of Filtered Google+ and Yelp Reviews – me

 9 Questions To Assess Your Review Management Stress Levels – Mike Blumenthal

The Local Business Reviews Ecosystem – me

My SMX West 2013 Presentation on Customer Reviews – me

What Should You Tell A Client When Google Loses Their Reviews – A 4 Part Plan – Mike Blumenthal

5 Ways Negative Reviews are Good for Business – Matt McGee

Local Search Ranking Factors – David Mihm

Any tips or anything else you’d add to the list?  How about questions?  Leave a comment!

How the Google+Local Train Wreck Is Good for Business

Yesterday the one and only Mike Blumenthal wrote a dead-on post about the TARFU situation that is Google+Local – which he aptly calls a “train wreck.”

Some of the lowlights he touched on included:

1.  The fact that Google hasn’t made it clear what’s happening to the old Google Places “Dashboard” or even whether the Google+ backed will become the only place you go to manage your Google listing(s).

2.  The recurring rash of “We currently do not support this location” error messages.

3.  Google’s failure to communicate what’s next­ – like when we can expect the transition to Google+ to be (somewhat) complete or when Google will allow businesses with many locations to integrate their Google+ for Business pages.

I agree with everything Mike said in that post…with one exception: A “train wreck” implies unmitigated disaster.  What’s going on with Google+Local doesn’t quite qualify as one of those, in my opinion.

Rather, I’d say that the problems in Google+Local are – in at least one strange way – good for business.  The problems provide a swift kick in the pants to pay attention to other parts of your online local visibility.

If have been or are rightly afraid of wrangling with Google’s shortcomings and bugs (some of which are more like Starship Troopers -type giant insects), you have a little more impetus to do things like:

  • List your business on as many third-party directory websites as possible.
  • Make sure your profiles on those sites have as much detail as you can muster.
  • Get reviews on as many other sites as possible.
  • Start building an email list.
  • Most important of all, beef up your website.  Add things like customer testimonials, tons of info that’s useful to potential customers and non-promotional (blogging is a good way to do this), and great feedback/analytics tools like CrazyEgg and Qualaroo (please tell me you already have Google Analytics!).

Yes, Google needs to get its act together sooner or later (or else eventually fewer people will use it and Google won’t make as much dinero from ads).

Yes, Google’s mismanagement can hurt real businesses – maybe yours – run by real people who need to bring home the bacon.

No, it’s not always fair.

Trust me, I know.  I wrangle with Google all day long.  I know how frustrating it is.

But I also know that if (for example) my rankings for this website went “poof” tomorrow, I’d still get plenty of new clients and plenty of people would still read my posts.

That’s partly because I focused on the “other stuff” literally years before I had any good rankings, or even a halfway decent website (a brief history of that here, in case you’re interested).

All of those “other” items I mentioned (above) are things I try to help many of my clients do, both before and after they get good Google rankings.

The fact is that any time you depend on any one way to get the phone to ring, you’re taking a risk.  Whether it’s Google+Local, or pay-per-click ads, or word-of-mouth.

I like to think of the blind samurai Zatoichi, from the films of the same name.  He’s blind, but all his other senses are so heightened that his sneaky, murderous foes don’t stand a chance.  His profound badassery wouldn’t exist without his blindness.

You absolutely should push to get visible in local Google.  But my point is you don’t want to push all your poker chips into it.

By the way, many of the to-do items I mentioned are key factors in your Google visibility anyway.  To the extent Google is “working” for you now – and certainly once you’ve gotten past whatever problems that have you down at the moment – those steps are likely to help your Google+Local rankings.

But regardless of how well Google is functioning, if you spend more time on the stuff you can completely control, you will get you in front of more local customers.

Scroll up, take a look at that list, and see how many items you can start knocking off today.

(Anything you’d add to the list?  Leave a comment!)

 

Low-Hanging Fruit on Google+Local Pages

Google Places has been gone for 6 months now, and “Google+Local” has been its replacement ever since.  This has been the first phase – and probably the longest phase – in Google’s effort to move everyone’s business onto Google Plus.

The transition to Plus isn’t complete, as you may know.  Many businesses have access to the newer, “fancier” type of Google listing (more on this in a second), while others aren’t eligible to use it just yet.

Some business owners have decided not to bother “upgrading” manually and choose instead to wait until Google finally rolls out the upgraded version for everyone automatically.

But here’s why I’m writing: extremely few business that have access to the (relatively) new bells and whistles have actually been using them.

Your Google+Local listing is one of the “fancier” ones if it has four tabs AND a blue “Write a Review” button (among other indicators).

A Google+Local page with the features of Google Plus (confusing, huh?)

If your Google page looks like the above, this article is aimed right at you.

Even if your business is service-based (where you travel to your customers rather than the other way around) and therefore isn’t eligible for the above type of listing, you should still give this a quick read.  Why?  Because sooner or later your Google page will have the new bells and whistles, too – at which time you’ll want to use them to the fullest.

There are 3 Google+Local features I’ve seen few to no businesses use.  I consider them low-hanging fruit because they’re easy to put into action and benefit from.

Do I consider these suggestions revolutionary?  Of course not.  None of these things is likely to get your rankings up if they’re down in the dumps.  But are they slight edges that may make you a little more visible to local customers?  Damn straight.

Low-Hanging Fruit #1:  Beefing up your “Introduction” section under the “About” tab by writing a detailed description of your business / services and including links to relevant subpages on your website.  Here’s a nice example of this put into practice by Mike Blumenthal’s flagship client, Barbara Oliver Jewelry: 

Your business description now can be more detailed and can include links

Low-Hanging Fruit #2:  Reviewing other businesses – and seeing whether they’ll do the same for you.  Yes, you can do this.  David Mihm wrote about this immediately after Google Places became Google+Local.  ‘Fraid I don’t have a real-life example to show ya, though: I’ve yet to find a business that uses this smart approach to getting reviews.

 

Low-Hanging Fruit #3:  Asking customers to add you to their “Circles.”  This doesn’t seem to affect local rankings, at least at the moment.  Probably will in the future, but not now.  So why bother asking customers to add you to their circles?  Well, because you’ll be a little more visible in Google’s “personalized” search results to the people in your customers’ circles.  Because birds of a feather flock together, and because friends talk with each other, some of those people actually may be potential customers.

But here’s probably the stronger reason: IF you’ve asked some customers to write Google+Local reviews for you but those reviews have been filtered by Google, you might as well ask those customers to add you to their circles.  (And why not…they’ve already created Plus pages.)

Get into some customers' "circles"

As hard as it can be sometimes to ask (or remind) customers to review you, once they’ve gotten around to doing it, they do NOT like going to that effort only to have the review get filtered.  I think there are several reasons for this, but just to speak for myself, I know that when that sort of thing happens to me, I feel like I didn’t make good on my “word” to leave some helpful feedback.Even a customer who’s frustrated by Google’s filter will probably still be glad help you, the business owner, in some way – if he/she knows what to do.  Adding you to circles obviously isn’t as good as getting a review, but it helps in the ways I already described, and it helps maintain the feeling of a good quid pro quo.

(By the way, in case you’re not sure how customers can add you to their circles, here’s what you’d tell them to do: tell them to go to your Google+Local page, sign into their Google+Local account (if they’re not already signed-in), hover over the big red “Follow” button, and click on any one of the checkboxes.)

Can you think of any other Google+Local features that more business owners should be using?  Leave a comment!