4 Ways to Read Google’s No-Cherry-Picking Policy on Google Reviews

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertknot/8942969294/

Google recently added the following to their seldom-enforced list of preferences policies on Google Maps reviews:

“Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.”

The basic meaning seems clear enough: Google doesn’t want you to cherry-pick reviews.  Fine.  Got it.

But what’s Google’s definition of “discouraging or prohibiting” a negative review or “selectively soliciting” a positive review?  Have you done either of those things without realizing it?  Is Google only trying to scare the serious offenders and put everyone else (like you) on alert?

Joy Hawkins did a helpful post about Google’s “review-gating” policy.  Here is her take on what Google now tells us not to do:

“Review-gating is the process of filtering candidates before asking them to leave you a review.  Normally this is done by sending all customers an email template and first asking them if they had a positive or negative experience.  If they had a positive experience, they are asked to leave a review on Google but if they had a negative experience, they are prompted to leave private feedback and are never sent the option to leave a review publicly.”

Google doesn’t call it “review-gating,” or specifically mention customer-outreach tools, but I’d say Joy’s conclusion is solid, and good advice to heed.

The only trouble is other review-encouragement practices may or may not be in the crosshairs of Google’s new policy.  You can interpret “don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers” in a few other ways.  You could hamstring your effort on reviews unnecessarily, or you could do something Google doesn’t want you to.

Here’s probably the loosest way to read Google’s new “rule”:

Interpretation 1: “We don’t care if you only approach happy-ish customers for Google reviews, and we don’t even care exactly how you ask, just as long as you constantly make it clear that customers can leave you a negative review if they feel the need.”

A more-specific reading:

Interpretation 2: “We don’t care whom you ask for Google reviews, but you’d better not fixate on their star ratings or what they say in the reviews.  So that means don’t be like the hotel that fined guests for leaving bad reviews, don’t tell customers things like, ‘If we haven’t earned your 5-star review yet, please contact us first’, and don’t use review funnels.”

Here’s the harshest interpretation of it:

Interpretation 3: “Ask all customers for reviews, or ask none at all. Don’t let your knowledge of a customer’s happiness influence whether you ask him or her for a review.  If you do ask for a review, pretend there’s no such thing as a ‘negative’ review, a ‘positive’ review, or star ratings.”

Here’s what I think Google means:

Interpretation 4: “We’re obligated to tell you that you shouldn’t ‘selectively solicit’ or ‘discourage or prohibit’ reviews.  We’re smart enough to define those terms more clearly for you, but we’d rather leave it open to interpretation.  That’ll deter some people, and it’ll spook software makers into enforcing our policies for us, and it lets us change our definitions however we want.”

Google long has left its review guidelines and other guidelines mushy (or obscure), apparently by design.  Google’s policies, enforcement SOPs, and internal politics change all the time.  Why wouldn’t they keep their options open?

For many years I’ve urged clients and others not to put words in customers’ mouths, not to fixate on 5 stars, and always to seek honest feedback.  It’s possible to try too hard to avoid bad reviews.  In doing so you miss out on many of the benefits of reviews in general.

But if you learn customers have gripes, it’s only reasonable to try to work out any problems first.  That’s what they hope and expect you’ll do.  They know full well that they can leave you a bad review at any time.  I suspect the Google Maps powers-that-be would agree, but on the off-chance they don’t, let’s see them try to do something about it.  As David Baxter said over at the Local Search Forum, “It’s about deterrence.”

How do you interpret Google’s latest mushy “policy” language?

Does it change your strategy in any way?

Any possible readings I missed?

Leave a comment!

Using a Shortened URL to Ask for Google Reviews? Goo.gl May Cut You Down

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuatrok77/16044942927/

A good way to make it easier for customers / clients / patients to review you on Google Maps is to send them a link straight to the “Write a review” popup.

You probably send a shortened URL (like https://goo.gl/qQgbjT), because it’s tidier than the full URL.

That is most likely to be a problem under two conditions: (1) if your address is “hidden” on your Google My Business page, and (2) you use the Goo.gl URL shortener to create the short link you send to would-be reviewers.

The problem is Google disables your short URL and takes people to a scary page like the one shown here.

Is it always a problem?  Doesn’t appear so.  In some cases I’ve been able to get the shortened links to work for service-area businesses.  On the other hand, Chris Barnard of Social Dental Network tells me that Google nixed his shortened URL for a bricks-and-mortar business.  (Chris’s post at the Local Search Google+ Community is what alerted me to this issue in the first place.)  Your mileage may vary.

The kicker is you won’t even know Google doesn’t like your short URL unless you or your customers click on it.  Goo.gl won’t show you an error message after shortening your URL.  Looks just peachy.

You may even run into that problem if you send a shortened link to a page of search results, rather than to the “write a review” pop-up.  I’m still testing that one.

Count on Google to harsh the mellow.

By the way, you shouldn’t have problems if your Google My Business page shows your full address publicly.  So if you’ve got a bricks-and-mortar location, or if you just don’t want to “hide” your address (these days you don’t need to), you probably could use Goo.gl to shorten your “review us” links without incident, if you wanted to.  But I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that.  Google eventually may take issue with all shortened “review us” links, at which point you’ll probably be the last to know.

Googles policies on shortened links don’t shed any light on why “review us” links are a problem, or on why they seem to be a problem only or mostly for businesses with hidden addresses on Google My Business.  Chalk it up to Google reviews being a mess in general.

What can you do?  Some options:

1. Use other URL shorteners, like bit.ly or TinyURL. I imagine the only reasons you’d use Goo.gl in the first place are that you can access your links later, and that you can see usage data (like how many people click on the links). If you don’t care too much about Google’s data, I can’t think of a good reason to use Goo.gl.

2. Send longer, not-shortened links. They’re only messy if you send a link to the “write a review” popup. They’re not too bad if you send a link to a page of brand-name search results, with a simple URL like google.com/search?q=Local+Visibility+System

3. Consider un-hiding your address on your Google My Business page. Whether you should have it hidden in the first place is mostly a matter of preference. On the slim chance Google doesn’t like it, they’ll simply hide your address for you.

4. Test your URLs before sending them to any would-be reviewers. One way to do that is to use Whitespark’s Google Review Link Generator. If you search there for your business and it doesn’t come up, Google probably won’t want you to use a shortened URL.

5. Contact reviewers to whom you sent a Goo.gl URL and send them a link that works.  Maybe apologize for the hassle. (Also, that’s a good excuse to send them a reminder.)

6. Redirect a page on your site to the full “Write a review” URL. Thanks to Jay Holtslander for reminding me of that option.

7. Don’t rely only on “review us” links. You shouldn’t do that anyway. Especially given the unreliability of Google-shortened URLs, you’ll want to go belt-n’-suspenders.  If possible, ask for Google reviews in-person first, and provide clear instructions in a follow-up email (if not also in your initial request).  The links should be part of a broader strategy you work on continually.

Do you send shortened “review us on Google” links?  If so, when have you run into problems, and when have you not?

Can you find any Google policy that clearly states Google’s problem with using shortened links to encourage Google reviews?

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.

Google’s March to the Reviews Sea: What’s the Next Stop?

 

Google has handled “Plus” reviews very differently in 2013 from how it handled them in 2012.  The powers-that-be at Google now seem to want customers to leave reviews, and for business owners to ask customers for reviews.

Sounds reasonable enough.  But it wasn’t always that way.  As you may recall, in 2012 Google started requiring customers to have a Google+ page to post a review (arguably a smart move) and then cranked the “review filter” dial up to 11.

To me, the low point was when Google stated that it was OK to “ask” a customer for a review but not to “solicit” one – a meaningless distinction that even Google’s anti-spam filters couldn’t  draw, given how many legitimate reviews it filtered and how many bad ones it kept around.

Exactly what’s changed in 2013?  Let’s flip back through the calendar:

  • May:  Google provides a means of getting reviews transferred from one Google+ Local page to another.
  • August: Google launches its City Experts program, to encourage “power reviewers” like Yelp’s Elite Squad members.

We’ve determined Plus reviews have become Google’s golden children.  Not only in terms of the steps Google has taken to popularize them (see above), but also in terms of their footprints in the search results.  As Mike Blumenthal recently pointed out, the number of times reviews are mentioned or shown on a typical page of Google’s local results can range from 8 to 15.

Of course, Google will never stop messing with the Plus reviews “landscape.”  It will keep morphing, like the rest of local search and the online (and offline) world.

And of course we can be pretty sure why Google pushes reviews so hard: to get more people using Google Plus actively.  The more active Plus users / reviewers there are, the better Google can mine data, and the more money it can make from ads.

But if the powers-that-be at Google want Plus to replace Yelp as the place to write and read reviews, the pace of change has got to slow down at least a little.  That’s the only way customers and business owners will come to understand, enjoy, and mutually use Google Plus reviews – at least in the numbers Google wants them to.

So, if Google’s march on Plus reviews continues in the direction it’s been going in for the last year, where might its boots fall next?

Put another way: what hasn’t Google done yet?

1.  The issue of that pesky reviews pop-up isn’t resolved.  It’s a contradiction that Google played up reviews on Google+ Local pages but in the same month made it very hard for most customers to navigate to those pages.  Something’s gotta give.

2.  The “carousel” still only shows up for searches relevant to certain industries.  It doesn’t show universally.  If it did, that would mean – among other things – that users would be able to “filter” all the local business results from the main search results page.

3.  Google’s Helpouts offering hasn’t rolled out yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised if reviews somehow dovetail with it.

4.  Google hasn’t given business owners tools for the express purpose of asking customers for reviews.  They’d have to be cautious – but it wouldn’t be the first time Google has erred on the wrong side of caution in trying to pump up that review-count.  Still, a review-encouragement solution would make sense as a next step for the new “reviews dashboard.”

5.  It’s already the 3rd of December and Google hasn’t surprised us this month (!).  You never know what’s around the corner.  A couple more days and I’ll think they’re slipping.

My advice?  Simple: this is the best time I can remember to encourage some of your customers to review you on Google Plus.  It’s only going to get more important to have Google reviews, and it might get more complicated to get them.

New Tool for Customer Reviews: Whitespark’s Review Handout Generator

About a year ago, Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca and I had an idea:

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a free and easy way to make a single page of instructions that walks your customers through how to post a review on your Google+Local page?

Darren had created the superb Local Citation Finder.  He was the “local SEO tools guy.”

I had already created simple, easy-to-follow Google+Local review “handouts” for my clients and other business owners.  I was the “reviews guy.”

Darren had bought my Google review handout for a client and really liked it.  I’d used and benefited from the Local Citation Finder since the day it came out.

So…our idea was that the Whitespark crew would build a free tool that instantly creates “how to write a review” handouts based on my tried-and-true design.

That tool is finally here.  Darren unveiled it in his SearchFest presentation today, and I’m unveiling it here now.

You can use it whether you’re a business owner or a local SEO.  You can use it whether you manage one business location or 100.

Go ahead – try the new review-handout generator at:

http://www.whitespark.ca/review-handout-generator

By the way, in case you’re wondering, there are only three differences between the documents you can make with the new Whitespark tool and the custom-made review handouts I’ve long offered on this site:

(1)  I can easily add custom features to your handout (e.g. QR code, extra graphics, annotations, etc.).

(2)  It’s easy for me to embed links in the PDF for you, so that if you email the doc to your customers, they can just click the steps to complete them.

(3)  I offer review handouts for other sites.

How do you like the Google+Local review-handout generator?  Any questions or suggestions?

How about a great big “Thanks, Darren!”

FAQ about Local-Business Reviews (on Google+Local and Third-Party Sites)

I’ve been asked many great questions about customer reviews.

And rightly so.  Reviews are a major factor in your local rankings in Google+Local and elsewhere, and they’re one of the very biggest factors in getting customers to choose you over the competition.

This is true both of reviews that customers write on your Google+Local page and of reviews written on third-party sites (Yelp, CitySearch, etc.).

The trouble is, aside from some fantastic in-depth posts others have done on the topic, there’s not a ton of clear info for the business owner who just wants to know the main do’s and don’ts.

So, it’s about time I put some of my answers on paper.

Here are the questions I’ve been asked most frequently – and my answers – in no particular order:

 

Q:  I know Google often filters out reviews that seem to come in at an “unnatural” rate.  How frequently should I ask customers for reviews?

A:  Nobody knows for sure what rate Google considers natural vs. unnatural.  It’s one factor of many that Google looks at.  Plus, it varies by industry (a coffee shop has many more customers and therefore potential reviewers than a general contractor does).

The rough rule of thumb I use for my clients is: ask 1-5 customers per week.  Whatever you do, be consistent from week to week.

 

Q:  If I get “fan mail” or other positive feedback from customers, can I post it as a review of my own business?

A:  No.  That’s against the rules of Google and every other site I can think of that deals with reviews.  The review filters will catch you probably 95 times out of 100 – certainly on Google and probably on other sites.  More importantly, it’s a bit dishonest.  However, you can post pretty much any kind of customer feedback on your site (provided it’s FTC-compliant).

 

Q:  If a customer posts a great review of me on Google or somewhere else, can I showcase that review on my site?

A:  Not if it’s a Google+Local review: Google will filter reviews that appear elsewhere on the web.  Most third-party sites don’t seem to have policies against this (plus, so many of them feed reviews to each other).  However, it’s not a bad idea to save your Google reviews (either via copy+paste or screenshot) so that in case Google ever “loses” your reviews and they don’t seem to be coming back, you can add those reviews to your site.

 

Q:  Can I ask some of my really happy customers to post reviews on multiple sites?

A:  This one calls for a multi-part answer:

If a customer reviews you on Google+Local and you want that person to post that same review on other sites, then no.  Google will filter the review if it appears anywhere else on the web.

If a customer writes you a Google+Local review and then writes completely different reviews on other sites, then yes.  It’s fine with Google if the same person reviews you on several sites – as long as the review posted on your Google+Local page is unique.

For third-party, non-Google review sites, yes.  With the possible of exception of Yelp, these sites generally don’t feel strongly about review polygamy.

 

Q:  How many different sites should I try to get reviews on?

A:  The more, the better.  Diversity of review sources has always seemed to be a strong ranking factor.  But my rule of thumb is 3.  That is, at any given time you should be asking each customer to go to 1 of 3 sites you’d like reviews on.  I’ve found that number to be large enough that you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, but not unmanageable – the way it would be if you were to ask different customers to go 10 different review sites.

Anyway, I’d say one of those 3 sites should be Google+Local.  One or both of the others should be a major site like Yelp, CitySearch, or InsiderPages.  If there’s a highly prominent industry-relevant review site – like DealerRater, AVVO, or TripAdvisor – then it’s probably worth having that be one of the 3.  Of course, once you rack up at least a few reviews on one of the sites, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to change it up and ask customers to review you on a different site.

 

Q:  How do I know which third-party sites I should ask my customers to review me on?

A:  See answer to above question.  Again, the short answer is that the “core” of your body of reviews should consist of Google+Local reviews and of reviews on least a couple of other major sites, like Yelp or CitySearch.

To the extent possible, you should also try to get reviews on sites that are geared toward your industry.  One starting point for determining those sites is to see which sites your local competitors (particularly the top-ranked ones) have reviews on.  Another is to check out the list of industry-specific sites on my Definitive Citations List.

 

Q:  How many customers should I ask for Google reviews versus for reviews on other sites?

A:  I usually suggest that my clients shoot for 50% Google+Local reviews.  Reviews on other sites should make up roughly the other 50%.  The idea is not to put all your eggs in one basket.

 

Q: Where do Bing and Yahoo reviews fit in?  Do they help my visibility in Google at all?

A:  They don’t help your Google rankings.  Bing and Yahoo are Google’s direct competitors.  They go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise.  However, it’s still good to get reviews on Bing and Yahoo simply to attract the people who use those two, smaller search engines.

By the way, as of this writing, there’s no longer a way to write reviews directly on Bing.  But in many cases Yelp’s reviews get fed to Bing, so your reviews on the former will help your visibility in the latter.

 

Q:  Can I suggest certain things I’d like my customers to write in their reviews?

A:  Another gray area.  Google says you can’t.  Other sites don’t seem to take a stance (as far as I’ve been able to tell).

From a strictly ethical standpoint, you certainly shouldn’t put words in your customers’ keyboards.

Plus, if you tell customers what specific keywords to use, your reviews will probably get filtered because they seem contrived.  Even the ones that do stick will look about as natural as Donald Trump’s “hair.”

However, if your customers genuinely have no idea what to write (not likely), it’s fine to give them a rough idea of “talking points.”

 

Q:  Should I wait until I’ve claimed my Google+Local to start asking customers for reviews?

A:  Yes, generally.  If you have duplicate or incorrect Google listings floating around that you’re trying to remove, I’d suggest waiting until the dust settles and you’ve only got one listing (per location).  Also, building up a corpus of reviews is a long-term project, so in one sense there’s no great rush.

However, if you don’t have a bunch of inconsistent information about your business floating around the web, and (again) if you don’t have a problem with duplicate listings, you can probably ask for customers to review you and not be afraid that the reviews will go “poof.”

 

Q:  How do I avoid looking “amateurish” when I ask for a review?

A:  Depends on how you ask.  As with anything else, there are cheesy ways and professional ways to go about it:

“Please oh please write me a review, pretty please with sugar on top” = cheesy

“Dear Valued Customer, your feedback would be appreciated” = cheesy

“Here’s a Starbucks card, now I expect my 5 stars, damnit” = cheesy

“If you could take a minute to write down your honest opinion about your experience with me, I’d really appreciate it” = professional

“I know other potential customers would want to hear what you think of our service  – warts and all – so it would be great if you could jot down a review of us” = professional

In general, I’ve found that more you use a no-pressure, “this is a personal favor I’d appreciate” approach, the easier it is to ask people for reviews, the less awkward it is for everybody, and the more willing people are to oblige.

 

Q:  My customers always seem to forget to write me reviews.  What should I do?

A:  Nag.  But try to do it in a classy, relatively low-pressure way. (“Gee, Phil, you mean that’s all I have to do?”)  I guess it depends on how close you are with your customers.  If there’s a “relationship,” you can ask repeatedly without becoming a burr in the saddle.  Some people will just never get around to it.  Others you may need to ask a total of 2-3 times.  You never know who falls into which category.

 

Q:  My customers said they posted reviews of me, but why aren’t they showing up on my page?

A:  They may have been filtered out if they were Google+Local or Yelp reviews.  I suggest reading this post from Mike Blumenthal (if you haven’t already).  Of course, this assumes that your customers know how to post reviews for you, and that you’ve provided clear instructions to customers who may not be so review-savvy.

 

Q:  What if Google loses my reviews?

A:  Keep getting as many Google reviews as possible, but also try to get reviews on other sites.  I know it can be tough.  I know how much hard work for a given job each review represents, and how badly Google sucks at keeping those legitimate, hard-earned reviews where they belong.  Still, the basic choice is (1) do nothing and have nothing to lose but also less potential to attract customers or (2) try to rack up a few more reviews and have that extra factor working in your favor.

 

Q:  What’s the easiest way to get reviews?

A:  Depends.  In a nutshell, any way in which you can both ask and provide clear instructions at the same time is a good approach.  I’m kind of partial to the review handouts I make and use with my clients (duh…that’s why I created them), but I can think of about 20 other ways to get reviews.

Any nagging questions you have – or have heard – about reviews?  Better yet, any answers to those questions?  Go for it – leave a comment!

Google Review Filter Fail

People’s exhibit “A”:

Yes, I can see that the review is from 4 years ago, and apparently has been grandfathered in.  (Though, as I recall, even 4 years ago Google had some way to filter reviews.)

Maybe the review is from a legit (but clueless) customer.  Or from a guy who fell asleep on his keyboard and held down CTRL+V with his nose.

Still, in light of Google’s egregious mishandling of reviews, this is the sort of thing that makes you wish Google would just stop taking wild stabs at review-QC and just leave it to potential customers – humans – to make up their own minds.

9 Known Ranking Factors of Reviews in Google Places

Maybe your business has 2 reviews and sits proudly atop Google Places.

Or maybe you’ve busted your butt for 40 customer reviews but still toil at #13 on page 2 of Google.

Perhaps your competitor is outranking you…even though he has 3-star average rating and you have a 5-star average.

You’re well aware that reviews influence your Google Places ranking.  That’s as true as ever.  So what gives?

Simply this: a review is not a review.

Numbers do matter—a lot.  So does your average rating.

But Google looks at many aspects of your reviews when deciding how to rank your business in Google Places.

Why should you care?  Well, because you need a rough idea of whether your reviews are helping, hurting, or having no affect on your Google Places ranking.  That tells you whether your current review-solicitation strategy is right on the money or needs serious tweaking.

At least 9 factors seem to determine how your reviews influence your local ranking.  I’ve noticed these on my own, and David Mihm touches on most of these factors in his excellent “Local Search Ranking Factors.”

It’s impossible to tell which single factor is the most important, which one is second-most important, etc.   But what is clear is that the more of these qualities your reviews have, the more likely it is you’ll outrank local competitors in Google Places.

Anyway, without further ado, the main review factors (in no particular order):

  • Total number.  The grand total of all your reviews on all the sites where customers may have written reviews for you—Google Places, CitySearch, InsiderPages, etc.

Factor: total # of reviews

  •  Total number of “Google reviews.”  Long story short, Google pays somewhat more attention to its own “brand” of reviews.  All other things being equal, you get more ranking benefit from 10 Google Places reviews than from, say, 10 SuperPages reviews (in my experience).

Factor: total # of Google reviews

  • Total number of reviews on third-party sites.  In other words, how many customer reviews you have on sites other than Google Places.

Factor: total # of reviews on third-party sites

  • Average rating.  Newsflash: a 5-star average is better than a 4-star average.
  • Relevance to services.  Your reviews help your ranking more if they contain phrases that are relevant to the services you’re trying to get found for.  A review that says “Best dentist in town” is more beneficial than one that says “Dr. John Doe is the best!”

Factor: keyword-relevance to your specific services

  • Relevance to location.  One of the big “questions” that Google tries to determine is whether your business is, in fact, local.  If reviews seem to confirm that you are located in the area you claim to be located in, Google’s more likely to rank you well.  So, to go back to my previous example, a review that says “Best dentist in town” is not as good as one that says “Best dentist inCleveland.”
  • Velocity.  AKA the speed at which you receive reviews.  If you get 5 reviews in 5 weeks, your Places ranking is more likely to improve than if you get 5 reviews in a year.  Receiving reviews at a healthy pace is one indication that you run a fully operational business, and that customers emerge alive and well and willing to write you reviews from time to time.  To Google, it’s just another sign that you run a quality business.
  • Diversity of sites.  Do you only have reviews on MojoPages, or do you have them on MojoPages, CitySearch, InsiderPages, YellowPages, and Google Places?  The more sources your reviews come from, the better.

Factor: diversity of sites where you have reviews

  • Prominence / authority of third-party sites.  20 customer reviews on a well-established site like CitySearch will probably get you more Google Love than if you had 20 reviews on some dinky little site nobody’s ever heard of.  (Note: Yelp reviews used to influence over your Google Places ranking heavily, but ever since July 2011, when Google stopped using Yelp’s data, Yelp reviews haven’t seemed to pack as much of a wallop).

There are some other aspects of reviews that may influence your Google Places ranking, but that I haven’t seen as much evidence for.  To some extent, I’m speculating.  Anyway, consider these 4 “maybe” factors:

  • Who writes the reviews.  It only makes sense that a Google review from a customer who’s written 20 reviews for other businesses would count for more than a review written by someone who’d never written a Google review and just opened a Google account 5 minutes ago.  I haven’t verified that this is the case, but it makes sense that the history / activity of the reviewer’s Google account would matter.
  • Pace.  I’ve noticed that businesses seem to rank most highly when they can get a steady stream of reviews.  If you get 30 reviews in a weekend and then none for a month, the alarms are likely to go off at Google.
  • Age of oldest reviews.  In the organic SEO world, “domain age” (how old your website name is) gives you a slight advantage in the rankings.  Similarly—all other things being equal—if you have reviews that are 3-5 years old, I’m sure Google gives you a slight edge over (say) a competitor whose oldest reviews are from earlier this year.
  • User feedback.  If people consistently visit your Places page and flag your reviews as “inappropriate,” I imagine that those specific reviews—be they 1-star of 5-star—would influence your ranking less.  Of course, if they’re flagged enough, Google may remove them entirely.  Similarly, the extent to which people rate your reviews “helpful” most likely affects how much influence they have over your Google Places ranking.

I think you could draw one of two conclusions from all of this:

Conclusion 1:  “Holy $#!%, I totally underestimated Google!  I’m going to have to put in overtime in my laboratory to conjure up the kinds of reviews that Google ‘likes’!”

OR

Conclusion 2:  “Google’s just trying to determine if my reviews are real, written willingly by my customers.  I’m just going to keep it simple and ask a bunch of my customers for reviews.”

The best thing to know about these factors is you can’t control all of them: you really cannot and should not try to cook up the reviews, nor should you be too heavy-handed in asking customers where, when, and how to write the reviews for you.

Instead, if you ask enough customers for reviews, over time you’ll cover all the bases (the “ranking factors”).  And that will ensure that your reviews, as a whole, will have the one quality that Google can’t detect but that will win you the most customers: authenticity and sincerity.

Any interesting stats, tests, or case-studies that I should know about?  Any review factors that I forgot to include, or that you think belong on the “maybe” list?  Leave a comment!

By the way, here’s a one-page “tip sheet” I put together a while ago on best practices for asking customers for reviews.

Google Places Scavenger Hunt: Find Me a Blended Review

What’s a “blended review”?  It’s where a customer writes a review of a business and uploads photos to that business’s Google Places page—which results in the review and pictures being “blended” in the review area.

I discovered “blended reviews” last week.  Here’s the LONE example I’ve been able to find so far—for Mike’s Pastry in Boston (my all-time favorite):

Challenge: find a "blended review" in Google Places

I want to learn more about these “blended reviews”—who has them, the kind of customers who leave them, how they’re ranked within the Google Places review area, etc.

Trouble is, I just burned out  my eyeballs by spending way too long looking for another example of one.  I came up dry, and will probably need to go buy a pair of Coke-bottle glasses after this.

That’s why I’m offering you a bounty.  If YOU can send me a link to a business in Google Places that has at least one “blended review” (as described above), I’ll give you a free Google Places review handout or a “Best Ever” review handout.

Two caveats: (1) you can’t simply send me a link to your Places page (where it’s easy enough to get a non-customer to upload a review and photos), and (2) you can’t send me a link to a business that you reviewed and uploaded photos of.

In other words, it’s got to be a “blended review” that occurs in the wild—like of a business you’ve been to or stumbled across in Google Places.

Bonus: if you can find me a naturally occurring blended review that is NOT for a hotel, tourist attraction, restaurant, or any place that sells food or drink, I’ll give you a free Google Places review handout AND a handout for getting “Best Ever” Google reviews.  What I’d love to find is a business in a service industry (landscaping, roofing, plumbing, etc.) or a profession (doctor, lawyer, etc.) that has a blended review.

Up to the task?  In the words of Cosmo Kramer…giddy up!

Special thanks to Linda Buquet and Nyagoslav Zhekov, who clued me in to the extreme scarcity of blended reviews.

–Update (10/14)–

We’ve actually found a few more examples of blended reviews.  Eric Marshall of ZCreative.com found this one.

I also found a couple of others (by the same user who did the blended review for Mike’s Pastry) here and here.

Notice that the blended reviews consistently rise to the top of the list of Google reviews.  Sure, obviously Google considers them relevant reviews, because of all the bold keyphrases/sentiment fragments in the actual text of the reviews.  And yes, Google does tend to put the more recent reviews at the top of the heap.

But based on even this little “core sample,” it’s pretty clear so far that Google gives blended reviews a spotlight.  They’re inherently super-prominent just because they contain pictures—and Google is making blended reviews doubly prominent by featuring them at the top of the customer-review area.

The Wedding of Google Places Reviews and User-Uploaded Photos

Reviews in Google Places have just gotten a little fancier: user-uploaded photos can now appear mixed in among customer reviews.

If a customer writes you a review and uploads photos to your Google Places page, the photos actually appear IN the review.

I noticed this when I was obsessing over the cannoli at my all-time favorite bakery (Mike’s Pastry in Boston):

Google Places reviews meet user-uploaded photos

Customers have been able to upload photos for a while.  They’ve always been able to write reviews, but in the last few months Google has been placing more and more attention to your customer reviews—and making them more and more prominent on your Places page.  Customer-uploaded photos and customer reviews have finally tied the knot.

I predict that it’ll become more and more beneficial to ask your customers not only to write reviews but also to upload their pictures.  It’s already a good idea.

By the way, I don’t think there’s a name for these blended reviews.  How about we call them the “blended reviews” of Google Places?  Clever, huh? 🙂