Best Mike Blumenthal Blog Posts (So Far): a Poll of Longtime Fans

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Mike Blumenthal needs no introduction to anyone who pays close attention to Google Places and the rest of the crazy world of local search.

If you’re reading this, either you’re already a fan of Professor Maps (as he’s known) and his blog, or you’re becoming one.

I’ve read his posts throughout my local-search career so far.  I’m not alone when I say they’ve been a huge influence on my thinking, to say the least.

The only trouble is: of the 2400+ posts Mike has done so far, it’s hard to know where to start, or which posts are the most evergreen.

That’s why I asked some of the longest-time / hardest-core readers of Mike’s blog what their all-time favorite posts are.  They also added some great commentary.

Even this list of favorites probably has the shelf life of sushi, given how much Mike publishes (see the July 2014 storm of posts). But it’s still worth a try.

Here are the top picks of some long-time readers:

 

Miriam Ellis

 

1) In the Trenches: The Reality of Smb Marketing – Bruce’s Sew Handy Interview

This is an oldie from 2008. I’ve always remembered this post for the picture it painted of how marketing looks and feels to a small business owner. The story told in this interview should help any marketer to act with empathy and great respect when supporting hard-working SMBs. I admire Mike’s ability to surface interesting man-on-the-street stories like this one.

2) What Should You Tell a Client When Google Loses Their Reviews – a 4 Part Plan

Remember the great Google review loss fiasco of 2012? Mike not only wrote great posts like the above helping marketers to support clients who had lost reviews, but he also came up with the idea of consolidating as many complaints as possible onto a Google And Your Business Forum help thread. I would bet I’m not alone in saying that Mike’s work has made me feel less alone during many Local crises!

3) What Does My Business Tell Us about the Future of Google Plus?

Years of experience in Local and Mike’s one-of-a-kind insight are beautifully showcased in this piece. This is what we’ve all come to rely on Mike for, over the years. Just fantastic! Hats off to you, Mike – it’s been a privilege learning from you for the better part of a decade!

 

David Mihm

 

No one, and I mean no one, has chronicled the evolution of Google’s local and mapping products more closely than Mike Blumenthal.  The man probably knows more about legacy systems and rationale for why things are built the way they are than all but a few product managers at Google.

Small business owners and the search community — possibly even the world of local searchers — owe Mike a debt of gratitude for helping make local search at Google what it is today.  He has been a positive thorn in Mountain View’s side, exhorting Google to improve their products to a level where they are actually usable by small business owners and searchers — a task that continues even today in the aftermath of the “crappy” Pigeon update.

The fact that business owners finally have a usable interface from which to manage their listings, the option of phone support, and countless other amenities is due in no small part to Mike’s direct and indirect feedback to Google (and the tireless efforts of internal SMB advocates like Joel Headley and Jade Wang).

I’m proud to call Mike a friend for almost seven years (!) since first discovering his blog.

Here are some of my favorite Blumenthal articles:

Yelp: Real People. Real Reviews. Deceptive Sales Tactics.

29prime – Would You Buy A Used Car from These Guys Let Alone SEO?

Google Local: Train Wreck at the Junction

Which Review Sites Should You Use?

10 Likely Ranking Factors of Google’s Local Search Algorithm

Ranking Factors in Google Maps – Cracking The Code SMX Local

 

Dave Oremland

(aka Earlpearl)

 

Favorites:

1.  Early articles about the Google local patent.  Bill Slawski might have initially written about them but Mike studied them and drilled down into them with greater degree and specificity.

My experience is that in the early years after a new patent one often sees the most dramatic impact of those patents.  Before Google makes algo changes.   They are crucial to follow.  Mike has done a great job on those issues.

2.  The annual Loci articles.   Very thoughtful pieces from guest authors.  A worthwhile element of his blog.

3.  In a general context Mike jumped on the review issues early on.  He’s covered it and dissected it with clarity.   Of the many many articles referencing reviews the one that stuck with me were the two articles about the dentist in Washington State.   Those stories added an astonishing human element to the overall review saga, in particular, if one believes the dentist’s side of the story it revealed a “fatal attraction” kind of element to reviews. Really amazing human drama connected to the business function of trying to respond to reviews.  That was fascinating.

 

Nyagoslav Zhekov

 

Chances are I have missed A LOT of extremely important posts, but I tried very hard to keep the number under 20

What Is Location Prominence?

Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in Encouraging Customer Reviews

Google Places and Their New Rejection Algo – It Is Like 7th Grade All over Again!

Graphic: How an SMB Solves a Problem in Google Places

Review Management: 7 Tips on Avoiding Bad Reviews

An Imagined Conversation with Google about Reviews, 29Prime & Sock Puppets

The Untold Story of 2011: Google’s Significant Investments in a Google Places Support Structure

Will Citations Stop Being Effective for Local Optimization in the Future?

9 Questions to Assess Your Review Management Stress Levels

Google Local: Train Wreck at the Junction

What Makes for a Good Author Photo in the Local Results? (Part 1)

What Makes for a Good Author Photo in the Local Results? (Part 2)

Video Snippets vs. Author Images – Which Have Higher Click Through Rates?

10 Reasons That the Google Knowledge Graph Sucks More Than the Local Graph

Yahoo and the “Everybody But Google” Realities of Local Search

Mike Blumenthal is rightfully the top authority in local search in the last 5+ years. His infinite energy and will to look for answers, to share thoughts, to inform the community, and to urge development where improvement is needed are hardly matched by anyone in the Internet marketing world. Mike’s articles on local search, Google Maps, Google Places, review strategies, small business marketing, and Google-related issues have been the first ones I started reading while I was still “learning how to walk” in the industry. As I joined the game a little later (early 2011), the majority of my favorite articles of Mike are naturally from the period after that.

Mike’s articles are both informational and raising questions and topics for discussion. His word is so influential that he has frequently provoked revisions of strategies in the SEO world, as well as urgent processual or technical changes within companies such as Google, for instance. I believe our industry is happy to have him, and I hope he will stick around for many more years.

 

Andrew Shotland

 

I have to start with one of Mike’s very first posts – The Basics of Listings Success. As he put it back then:

“Unlike optimization for organic search, optimization for local search at the major engines is in a much less developed state. It seems to have many fewer people poking, prodding and testing the hypothesis of local search and coming up with a definitive set of best practices. This is list is an attempt to create that model that we can all test. Have a go and let me know.”

Every couple of years a new wild west emerges via the Web. This post documents a time when Local still had room in it for wide-eyed optimism and Mike’s eyes proved to be both the widest and the narrowest at the same time. Getting a bit misty…

Of course I loved when he first started acknowledging how screwed up this Local stuff was for small businesses, in his own inimitable style. From the classic “Local Data Accuracy – a Veritable Beehive“:

“The group is a regular beehive of activity with a surprising amount of input from small business owners. But it is a beehive in which the keeper just stuck his hand into the hive and stirred things up by sticking the bees in the wrong place and the bees are mad!”

I think Mike’s post about the difference between ValPak’s coupons and everyone else’s in Google Maps was when I first started to be in awe of Mike’s obsession with the minutiae of Local. I mean who else was writing about the pixel size of fucking coupons at that point?

If I had to pick a favorite, it probably has to be Google Local: Train Wreck at the Junction. Mike seems to be pretty tight with the Google Local team, or at least as tight as they can be with anybody. And still Mike cannot stop speaking truth to power as it were. While there have been plenty of SEO bloggers bitching and moaning about Google Local’s shortcomings, this post solidified his rep as perhaps its finest critic.

And of course any post mentioning Barbara Oliver, one of Buffalo’s finest jewelers, is always a winner.

 

Andy Kuiper

(late addition)
 

Mike Blumenthal’s blog is the go-to place to find out what’s what when it comes to Local search & Google. Every day I look forward to seeing what Mike and his followers (several of whom are the top Local SEO ‘gurus’ in North America) have to say. Mike’s blog, and his follower’s comments have helped so many SEOs and SMBs understand what’s going on in Local… and there is always something strange going on in Local 😉

Here are three posts that may be of help to SMBs:

How Does Google Choose a Profile Photo? It’s the Algo Dummie!

Google+ Custom URLs – Facts, Tidbits and Concerns

Google+ Local Quality Guideline Update Allows for Multiple Departments

(Note: I asked Andy at the same time I asked everyone else for top picks. He just took a while :))

 

Me

 

This is too tough.  But I’ll channel my inner monk-like ascetic powers and name only 7 posts (in no particular order):

Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in Encouraging Customer Reviews

Infographic: Citations – Time to Live – a joint research project / post with Mr. David Mihm

Asking For Reviews (Post Google Apocalypse)

Which Review Sites Should You Use?

What Does My Business Tell Us about the Future of Google Plus?

Yext & Local SEO

What Does a Link Campaign Look Like for Local?

 

To sum up all thoughts on Mike’s posts:


What are your favorites so far?

Leave a comment!

Hear Me Blab about Categories for Local SEO

Mike Zaremba of Radical Mustache has started a great podcast series on local SEO.

It has a bent toward restaurants, because many of his clients and audience are restaurateurs.  But the subject matter applies to any kind of business.

The other day, Mike asked me some tough questions on the topic of categories.  You can listen to the podcast here:

A Guide To Proper Category Association With Phil Rozek

You’ll also find some non-audio resources.

Thanks to Mike for a great chat.  By the way, I suggest you check out his blog.

Especially if you listen to all 45 minutes, let me know what you think!

Mike Ramsey on Local SEO for Law Firms

You don’t need to be a lawyer – or work for lawyers – to benefit from battle-tested advice on local SEO in particular and marketing in general.  (If you do work in the legal field, this is your lucky day.)

I’ve always admired Mike Ramsey’s approach to both.  He’s known far and wide as the big kahuna at NiftyMarketing.  Last year he launched a sister company, NiftyLaw, specifically to help law firms.

Not only are his clients in cutthroat local markets, but the legal-marketing space is also competitive.  That’s a two-headed monster.  I asked Mike some tough questions about both areas, and he didn’t shy away from them.

If you’re in a tough local market and need strategy tips, read on.

Phil: NiftyMarketing has been around for a while, and doing pretty well.  What made you want to add NiftyLaw to the mix – and why did you do it when you did?

Mike: I started thinking about where local agencies were headed and I decided there were 3 categories

1. Low Cost Provider – These are the extremely scalable outsource operations that have heavy churn and more sales people than service people.

2. Specialized – These are experts in specific verticals or specific areas of practice (think Darren and Nyagoslav with Citations or Scorpion Web Design with Lawyers)

3. Platforms – These are scalable tools like SIMPartners, MozLocal, Yext and Placeable that are being adopted by big brands.

I realized that Nifty Marketing was trying to be a little too much of everything. We had so many processes for different types of situations that it became a little overwhelming and scale became a burden and not a blessing. We started to look at areas of our business where we were doing very well and areas that we liked and started cutting the things we didn’t. Nifty Marketing is still thriving but we have definitely focused and NiftyLaw.com is part of that focus.

 

Phil: Why do you specialize in the legal industry?

Mike: We had a massive influx of clients coming from the legal industry and I was asked to speak at a few legal conferences that basically started the momentum. By the time we actually launched NiftyLaw.com we were well on our way down the legal road.

 

Phil: Other agencies specialize in legal marketing.  What makes you guys different?

Mike: I would say our content and local SEO knowledge. We are an extremely creative and fun agency and that is not the norm in legal. That’s what makes it fun. I mean, we roll into events with T shirts that say “I Make Law Sexy” and people either love us or hate us. But it definitely attracts the type of clients that we want to work with. Also, I just finished a book on Local Search for lawyers as there is just not than many people deep into Local that are sharing specific information for them.

[Phil: Here’s the book Mike referred to.]

 

Phil: Could you have started NiftyLaw before NiftyMarketing?  In other words, how well could you have “specialized” right out of the gates, without first having worked with a wide range of clients and racking up lots of experience?

Mike: Nifty Marketing had to come first. It opened so many doors that would have never been there without the overall Nifty brand.

 

Phil: To what extent did you consider specializing in other industries?

Mike: Major consideration and it will happen. We have people on our team with massive amounts of knowledge into a lot of areas and industries that we could go into and over time I plan on doing just that.

 

Phil: When you were considering whether to “specialize,” what were the potential cons you were weighing against the pros?  (I know the pros won.)

Mike: My biggest fear was that it would devalue Nifty Marketing as a whole. We have a great reputation in the local space and I didn’t want to see that change or to become less relevant by people thinking we only focus on lawyers now.

 

Phil: In what branches of law is local-online marketing extremely tough, versus only kind of tough?

Mike: Personal Injury can be crazy. Lots of competition and lots of spam. Easiest is actually small town lawyers that do everything. You can always find a way to do well given that situation.

 

Phil: It seems to take an extra-long time for attorneys to see results from a local SEO campaign, because of the high level of competition.  What do you say to a potential client who wants the phone ringing yesterday?

Mike: Call OrangeSoda 😉

 

Phil: What’s a learning curve that you often have to help your attorney clients (in particular) through?

Mike: Keyword rankings do not equal business. No other industry I have ever seen has a group of people that care so much about where they rank compared to traffic, leads, and new business.

 

Phil: What parts of legal marketing / local SEO do you have down to a science, and what do you have to “play by ear” for each new client?

Mike: We are getting really good at legal website design and legal content. The area that is always hard and rightfully so is our link building for lawyers.

 

Phil: Roughly what percentage of your clients say they’ve worked with SEOs in the past?

Mike: 100% in the law space. I haven’t talked to a lawyer in a long time that has never had some form of SEO done already.

 

Phil: On the occasions it just doesn’t work out between you and a law firm client, what are the reasons?

Mike: Not Ranking Fast enough or not ranking on the keywords they care about the most.  Even if all other signs are positive that can be a deal breaker.

 

Phil: What rules and regulations on legal-marketing drive you and your clients up a wall?

Mike: There are a lot of rules around testimonials and reviews in some markets that are insane. In some markets you can’t have reviews. It’s not realistic in today’s world to expect that of companies when 3rd party sites can destroy a company’s reputation with reviews.

 

Phil: Competition between law practices is famously cutthroat.  What kind of extra effort does it take for a law firm to get the upper hand in the local results?

Mike: Hours and Hours and Hours of Citation clean up and content creation. Unless you’re black-hat, and then you can just do anything with boat loads of links. 😉

We just did a study and found that the average personal injury lawyer in the US has around 9,000 links (more of this will come out in the future as we release info on our study). Can you think of another industry with that type of craziness?

 

Phil: You wrote a great post on how to approach localized” organic rankings.  You also stressed their importance during our webinar last year.  How much of the work you do for law firms is geared toward Google+ Local visibility, versus visibility in the localized-organic results?

Mike: To me it’s actually the same work and it centers on the content strategy.

 

Phil: Is it absolutely necessary that your clients have a “content” strategy?  If they don’t have one and aren’t willing to invest in having you help them develop one, do you take them on as clients?

Mike: Not any more. It is so hard to just work on maps when the organic opportunity is so big in local that you have to stop looking at local SEO as Google Places and MapMaker and start thinking of it as any way someone searches to find a local business. Maps display on very few law based words so there is a massive need for a solid content strategy and content marketing plan in place that expands the reach of a firm.

 

Phil: How do you encourage, urge, browbeat, or coerce your clients to do the “real-world marketing” (to borrow your phrase) that can win them links?

Mike: We pitch ideas once a month that we want to do, we get permission and we go. Things like real time traffic accident maps and law school scholarships can go a long ways in building authority.

 

Phil: Getting reviews always takes patience, and for law firms it takes even more patience.  What’s the biggest mental barrier between many law firms and a good strategy for reviews?  Is it that they aren’t sure whether online reviews are worth it, or that they wanted reviews yesterday?

Mike: It’s getting them to realize that they don’t need 1000 reviews. They need one a month. When we get that on the table most lawyers actually catch the vision and can accomplish that. 12 reviews a year is more than the average that we found across the industry, which is 5.4 total reviews across all websites we looked at.

[Phil: By the way, if privacy is an issue for your would-be reviewers, you’ll want to check out my post on anonymous/private reviews.)

 

Phil: OK, time for a lightning round.  I’ll rattle off a word, and you rattle off your quick thoughts on it.

Paid listings on lawyer directories?

Mike: Everybody’s doing it 😉

Phil: Paying for LocalEze?

Mike: Do it through MozLocal because InfoGroup is there. 😉

Phil: Avvo reviews?

Mike: Important if Avvo ranks in your market and practice area.

Phil: Hummingbird update?

Mike: Brought back a crap ton of legal exact match domain spam.

Phil: Call-tracking numbers?

Mike: Common issue and still poorly understood. Lawyers want to use them on everything. They should only use them on their website in an image.

Phil: Virtual offices?

Mike: I think they are totally fine to use in the real world and I will fight Google on this forever. Virtual offices exist in the real world. They were used before Google, and Bars are OK with them so I hate that they are in a constantly changing gray area with Google. They still work very well for many firms while others lose their listing. That’s crazy.

 

Phil: What do some legal-marketers / SEOs do that drives you nuts?

Mike: Negative SEO in the form of links pointing at people.

 

Phil: What do some lawyers do that drives you bonkers?

Mike: Treat SEO’s like scum. I have very little tolerance for that.

 

Phil: What’s the most common SEO mistake you discover once you start working with a client?

Mike: Extremely spammy link profiles. I have been loving this tool for looking at that quickly.

 

Phil: What can business owners in other industries learn from attorneys who do local marketing very well?  And how about from the ones who do it poorly?

Mike: They can learn from the competitive nature of lawyers. A lot of companies simply don’t care. That is not the case in law and even if it is intense and annoying if other industries put the focus that lawyers do into local search we would see crazy awesome innovation.  As for the ones that do it poorly… Businesses need to learn that it’s about your customer and not yourself. The Band Legal marketers have big egos that lead to focusing on the wrong areas.

 

Phil: Let’s say you’ve worked for a client for a year, and have put in a ton of hours.  What would a pie-chart of those hours look like?

Mike: Website 25%, Content 25%, Links 25%, Citations and Reviews 25%.

 

Phil: What do you / your team need to get better at?

Mike: I always want to achieve better local link acquisition. If we can continually innovate there we will always have work.

 

Phil: Has the work you’ve done to build NiftyLaw also helped NiftyMarketing at all?  Any cross-pollination there?

Mike: We have had a few lawyers that have referred us non legal work. They definitely both complement each other.

 

Phil: What are some things about marketing in the legal industry that you wish you knew for Lawyer Client #1?

Mike: Bar rules. I can’t believe how many things we used to do that were big no no’s that even the clients didn’t catch. You have to be careful in the law space. It is heavily regulated and you can get your clients in serious trouble if you aren’t very careful.

 

Phil: Do you foresee more local SEOs specializing over time?

Mike: Yes. I think we will see every company squeeze into those options I listed above. This will go along with a lot of mergers and buyouts as our industry matures.

 

Phil: When you launched NiftyLaw, you said, “I believe that most businesses exist for more than simply making profits.”  How would you apply that to NiftyLaw?  What besides business makes your business tick?

Mike: The People. Many of us live in a place where there is not a ton of work opportunities, let alone creative and tech industry jobs. So, we do what we do and are grateful for the opportunity to be in a small farming community doing it. There are ways we could make more money, or scale faster, but I love my life. Why sacrifice that for more money I can’t spend in a town where the most expensive menu item is like $20.

Thanks to Mike for a great interview.  You’ll want to follow him on Twitter and check out both NiftyMarketing and NiftyLaw (especially if you’re an attorney).

What advice of Mike’s really rings true for you?

Anything you disagree with?

Any questions?

Leave a comment!

Don Campbell on the GetFiveStars Tool for Getting Customer Reviews and Feedback

Don Campbell is a smart guy – and busy.  For at least as long as I’ve been in “local,” his company – Expand2Web – has been hooking up small-to-medium business owners with affordable, solidly built, professional WordPress sites.  He knows his local SEO, and has contributed to the Local Search Ranking Factors study five times.

Don is also as much of a customer-reviews nut as as I am (well, almost :)).  He’s built an excellent tool called GetFiveStars, which can help you get reviews from your customers – and save you a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the process.

We had a great pow-wow about reviews a couple of months ago, and will both be speaking on BrightLocal’s upcoming webinar on – you guessed it – customer reviews.  This interview is part of that ongoing conversation.

If you have any interest in getting more in-touch with your customers, getting more and better customer reviews, developing a product, or just building your business, read on.

Phil:  What would be your “elevator pitch” for GetFiveStars, to someone who might be pretty new to reviews in general?

Don:  Here’s our short version of what GetFiveStars does:

GetFiveStars.com is designed to let a small business or an agency working on their behalf easily implement a customer feedback/review management process based on tried and true best practices.

The product automatically solicits and tracks feedback, prevents bad reviews, pushes testimonials out to the business website and encourages happy customers to leave reviews across the Internet.

 

Phil:  And how would you describe it to a “reviews geek” like me, an SEO / marketer, or someone else who digs all the technical details?

Don:  In the industry we all know how important online reviews are in terms of both ranking and conversions. The trouble sometimes, is getting busy small business owners to be proactive about them. Most of the time it’s because they don’t understand how reviews work and don’t have a process in place to follow up with their customers.

What we’ve tried to do with GFS is to automate this as much as possible, making it easy for the business owner to collect feedback and engage with their customers. The result is more positive online reviews, less negative reviews, and happier customers who are referring you to their family and friends.

We also built the system so that it can be white-labeled by agencies that manage many businesses and want to provide their clients with a feedback and review management system.

Some SMBs are fearful of engaging in the review process. Our system frees them from worry and provides a process that allows them to interact with every customer without worrying about whether they will leave a good review or not.

We use an intelligent process that adapts to the customer’s feedback. For example, customers that are less-than happy will be directed to a page that thanks them for their feedback, and sends an alert for the business owner to follow up and resolve the situation.

Customers that leave very positive feedback are taken to a page that thanks them, and encourages them to leave a review on one of the popular online review sites. The business owner gets to define which sites show up here and in what order they are displayed.

We are using a sophisticated email delivery system on the back end to ensure no spamming goes on, and we get the highest delivery rates.

The software is built, maintained and updated by experienced Silicon Valley software veterans, and employs the latest web frameworks – such as Twitter Bootstrap – to ensure we have an elegant, responsive interface that works on all devices, including iPhones, iPads, Android devices, etc.

This means that a business owner could add a new customer and send the feedback request right from their iPhone. Or they could approve a testimonial to go live instantly on their website right from their tablet.

The Testimonials Widget allows businesses to automatically feature testimonials from their customers right on their website. It employs a “graceful degradation” approach so that it can work on any website, whether you are using WordPress, PHP, or just plain old HTML. These testimonials are marked up using the Schema.org review format that Google crawls and understands (more info from Google here), which results in SEO benefits for the business’ website.

We also have some pretty cool internal apps for monitoring the system and allowing us to tweak the product in real-time as necessary. Our product development process allows us to turn things around very very quickly.

Finally, we take customer support very seriously. We use HelpScout to track all support requests coming in to support@GetFiveStars.com. This ensures we follow up with every customer request quickly without stepping on each other’s toes 🙂

We are a very customer-centric company. Our role models are companies that place customer service at the top of their priority list – like Amazon.com and Zappos.

Phil:  There are at least a couple of other good tools for getting reviews.  Grade.us and ReviewBiz come to mind.  What would you say to a business owner who has trouble deciding which tool(s) to try – besides “test several and see what works best”?

Don:  Yes, there are a lot of different reputation management tools out there. Many of them are very good.

My advice is to look for a tool that focuses on helping you deliver great customer service by proactively engaging customers and building word of mouth referrals vs just building review counts.

Our approach has been to create something specific to the small business owner who wants to truly listen to their customers and build their word-of-mouth referrals.

We’ve created a unique method of helping the business connect with their customers and ask them for feedback. We don’t just help them monitor or get online reviews. We are helping businesses build better relationships with their customers.

By the way, I’m not comparing us to the other solutions you mentioned, just trying to share our approach and philosophy on this.

Phil:  What types of businesses is it best-suited for – or not so good for?

Don:  GetFiveStars works best for any type of service oriented business – one where you have customer visits and want to build a relationship with them to encourage repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.

It is not as good for product review sites, or websites with many products to review (like Amazon.com, for example) since the feedback requests are more geared for customer experiences or visits than products.

Phil:  How does GetFiveStars fit in with what you’re doing over at Expand2Web?

Don:  Expand2Web provides tools and training to help businesses succeed online. We help businesses make the transition to an effective web presence that delivers new customers.

GetFiveStars fits very well within that vision, and automates a process that we’ve implemented manually with many clients to help them follow up with their customers and build word of mouth referrals.

My background is as a software product manager. Working at companies like Interwoven and Microsoft, I’ve had the opportunity to work on some very exciting products. So this is a very special project for me because I can really see that value and results for the businesses we are working with. We’re having a blast working with customers, seeing how they use the software, and continuously improving it.

Phil: What kind of demand, or requests, or questions did you get from Expand2Web customers or clients that made you conclude, “This is how we should build GetFiveStars”?

Don:  We received a lot of really good feedback from our early customers that helped us shape the usability of the tool, and new ideas on reporting too.

One example of something that came from a customer request was the ability to automatically send out feedback request emails to customers rather than doing it manually.

This customer had an existing email list of customers and uploaded it to GetFiveStars. He was looking for guidance on things like “how many requests should I send? How often should I send them? What should they say?”

We automated all of these steps so that the business owner doesn’t need to worry about them. The business owner just get email alerts once feedback has been left for them so they can review it and respond if necessary. Of course they can still do it manually, but this is a feature that almost all of our customers take advantage of now.

Phil:  I know Professor Maps is another big brain that’s been involved in GetFiveStars.  When he and I talked recently, he said it really fits in with his vision for how business owners should go about getting reviews.  Where has Mike’s influence really come into play so far?

Don:  Mike became involved very early on. Much of the product is based on his vision. He’s a thought leader in local search and online reviews, and puts a lot of research into how these processes work best to help businesses succeed online.

With GFS we’ve tried to implement best practices that really work with our customers, and Mike’s philosophy and vision on what the best practices are. He is very involved in the product direction and partnerships that we make as well.  I feel very fortunate to have Mike involved in this project – he brings a ton of credibility and intelligence to the tool.

We both share a similar philosophy on how to help customers – it’s not just about getting as many reviews as you can or taking shortcuts.  We’re out to help businesses build long-term relationships with their customers and build thriving businesses with happy customers and word of mouth referrals.

Phil:  What’s been (or was) the hardest part of developing the tool?

Don:  Getting the design and user experience right. We’ve set a very high bar for the user experience in the product. And it’s hard to get right. Small Business owners are typically very busy and responsible for many jobs at once. So this tool needs to be very easy to use and efficient – it needs to create a lot of value or else the business owner will not use it.

We were fortunate enough to work with an amazing designer with a background in UX to help us. And we are constantly refining the user experience with the goal of making it super easy for the end business user, or agency, to use.

I’d say that has been the hardest part. That and coming up with the pricing 😉

Phil:  What was the biggest course-correction you made while developing GetFiveStars?  Any ideas you ended up scrapping – maybe even ones you’d like to revisit later?

Don:  Early on Mike urged us to develop an agency dashboard that would allow agencies, or anyone managing multiple business locations to see how all of their businesses are doing at a glance.

That required us to go back and rework how we thought about things. It was pretty challenging to do it right. It also complicated our messaging – we’ve had a really hard time figuring out how to describe the product and what it does to both SMBs and agencies at the same time.

I’m so glad we did that though, and think we have a much stronger product now because of it. Many of our customers are multi-location businesses and agencies that manage multiple businesses.

Phil:  What is the best piece of criticism you’ve received on GetFiveStars – one that really made you stop and scratch your head?

Don:  When some of our first customers got ahold of GetFiveStars, the first thing they wanted to do was import all of their Google and Yelp reviews into the tool.

They were really mad when we told them they couldn’t do this! But the problem is, if Google sees duplicate review content on your website, it may remove the review from the business’s Google+ page, which is not good of course.

It really highlighted for us the value of education in this domain. As you know, it’s very confusing for business owners how online reviews work, what the best approaches are, etc.

Phil:  People who create stuff tend to be their own harshest critics.  How would you critique GetFiveStars?

Don:  I feel like we have a great product. I can honestly say I’m happy with the functionality and the user experience.

But the marketing and website are not what I would like it to be. I don’t think it reflects the enthusiasm we have – and our early customers have – about the product.

We are a small company with limited resources and have been so focused on the software that we haven’t done a good enough job describing what it does.

[Note from Phil: they have some helpful videos on the site.]

Now it’s time for us to focus on telling our story, and helping business owners and agencies understand what we can do to make their lives better.

We also have to do a better job about getting educational content up on our website. I like companies who do a good job of providing free, valuable tips and info to customers. Everybody wins – people get valuable information to help them, and it builds trust and credibility in your brand. That worked very well for us with the SmallBiz theme, and now we need to do a better job of that with GetFiveStars in the form of tutorials and videos about customer feedback and reviews best practices, commonly asked questions, etc.

Phil:  What’s a “pro tip” about how best to use GetFiveStars?

Don:  I love the “pro tips” idea. I am always looking for “pro tips” whenever I take on something new, like learning photography, or using a new iPhone app or even playing a new game or sport.

Ok, here are a few “pro tips” for getting the most out of GetFiveStars:

  • Use the “automatic” mode for sending out feedback requests. We added a feature based on customer feedback that automatically sends out feedback requests to your customers on a daily basis. This makes their life easier, and ensures that they get a nice and steady flow of customer feedback and online reviews over time.

  • Customize your feedback request emails. We provide some nice templates, but there is no substitute for personalizing the emails that go out to your customers. You know your customers best. Making the emails personalized and friendly will result in more responses and ultimately better engagement and reviews.

  • Immediately follow up on less-than-positive feedback. One of our early customers told me she didn’t want to upload her email list and send out feedback requests to everyone. When I asked her why, she said “what if I get some bad feedback?” I told her, “that’s exactly why you want to send them out!” If you have a customer issue, don’t you want to know about it? If you know about it you can respond, and resolve the situation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an unhappy customer turn into one of the business’ biggest champions because they took the time to listen to them and address their concerns.

Phil:  What are some features you’d really like to add?

Don:  I’d like to add more and better reporting. I want to keep raising the bar on usability, and I want to do a great job of balancing new feature requests with maintaining simplicity in the product.

For example, I used to work at Microsoft, and one of their popular products was Microsoft Project. The product was updated an evolved over years and many features were added. At some point the product became too complex, it had hundreds of features that nobody used and the product became very hard to use.

Then along came a company called 37 Signals, who developed a lightweight, online project management tool called BaseCamp. They had a very interesting approach – they built a very simple, elegant and truly useful tool by tightly managing the feature set of the product. It was a pleasure to use, and they were very successful with this approach.

I like that philosophy – great products are simple to use and implement the key features that provide the most value really well. That’s the approach we’ve tried to take with GetFiveStars.

Here’s an example of a new feature I want to add soon – I admire the way tools like Trello and HelpScout have notifications inside the tool that introduce you to new features as they become available. It helps users discover new product features as they are using the tool and also demonstrates that the software developer is committed to improving the software regularly. I’d like to do something like that inside of GetFiveStars.

Phil:  GetFiveStars relies a lot on being able to contact your customers by email to ask for feedback / reviews.  What are some best-practices for emailing that you’d really want a GetFiveStars user to know and apply?

Don:  Personalize your email subject lines and the body of the email as well. Personalized, relevant emails get opened and acted on. We provide some nice defaults within the tool, so it doesn’t take long to tweak and customize them for your specific industry or types of customers.

Another tip I have is this – don’t be afraid to ask your customers for feedback. Many businesses I talk to are afraid to ask at first. But you will be surprised – customers want to be listened to. And even if they are not happy – especially if they are not happy – you want to hear from them. You can really turn an upset customer into a super happy customer by listening to them and addressing their concerns!

The big idea here is to engage with your customers and build lifelong relationships, so they will be happy and tell their family and friends about you. This becomes your best marketing, instead of running expensive ad campaigns.

Phil:  Some business owners only try to get reviews in fits and starts, and don’t really take the slow-and-steady approach.  They might be reluctant to pay even a small amount monthly, even for a tool that helps quite a bit.  What advice would you have for those people?

Don:  I know it is tempting to try to get a lot of reviews all at once, but the reality is that Google uses very sophisticated algorithms to determine ranking, placement, and review authenticity.

They are looking for a natural review profile that is built up over time from diverse sources. If they detect a surge in reviews or a lot of reviews from one source they may suspect that someone is trying to “game the system”. This results in filtering of some reviews, and poor results in the search rankings.

It’s similar to the panda and penguin updates where some people were stuffing their sites with thin content or buying backlinks. Sometimes they got a temporary boost but then got hammered when Google updated their algorithms to detect this behavior.

That’s why we recommend building a steady flow of feedback and reviews over time for the best, and most long-lasting results.

Phil:  There are a lot of mistakes a business owner can make when asking customers for reviews.  To what extent do you think business owners need to “educate” themselves about the dos and don’ts before (and while) using GetFiveStars?

Don:  It’s true – there are some “best practices” that businesses should consider when asking their clients for reviews.

In fact, we recommend asking for feedback first, and then depending on that feedback, take action to resolve any unhappy customers, or asking for online reviews from your happy customers. This shows your customer you aren’t just out for the review. You are in it to make them happy and satisfied customers. Then the great reviews come naturally.

This basic sequence will work wonders. And you don’t need a tool for this – you can even do it manually:

1.  Ask your customers for feedback

2.  Ask your happy customers for online reviews

3.  Follow up with unhappy or neutral customers to understand and address their concerns

I also suggest that businesses monitor the major online review sites so they know what is being said about their business online. Major review sites like Google and Yelp even allow the business owner to leave comments on the customer reviews. You can leave comments on positive and negative reviews, and leaving these comments shows that you are engaged with your customers and care about them.

Phil:  Obviously, a business owner can use GetFiveStars right “out of the box” to start asking for reviews.  But – as with anything else that’s worth doing – getting reviews is something where it’ll take you a little time to go from good to great.  What’s the learning curve for business owners who use GetFiveStars?  What do they need to get better at or discover over time, in order to use the tool to the max?

Don:  Recently we added a 3-step setup process to help businesses get up to speed quickly. It involves adding links to your online review profiles, customizing the feedback request email, and importing your customer email list.

Once those steps are done, GetFiveStars will automatically start sending out feedback requests to your customers (this automation is optional, by the way.)

Here are a few things I think business owners should do regardless of GetFiveStars:

  • Tell your customers how important reviews are for you, and make it easy for them to leave you a review (i.e. provide them with a direct link to your review profile.)
  • Make your website more personal. Add a picture of yourself, or of your smiling receptionist or office manager. People buy from other people, not anonymous websites.
  • Be transparent about reviews – put testimonials and reviews on your website with links to your online profiles. This shows customers that you aren’t hiding anything.

I’ve seen these tips lead to much more effective websites for many different businesses.

Phil:  Some business owners say that because there are so many fake reviews floating around the web, and because some reviews can get lost or filtered, it’s not worth putting much effort into getting reviews.  How would you reply to that?

Don:  It’s true there is a lot of this going on. But it doesn’t make it any less important to be proactive about your online reviews.

Google, Yelp and other services are getting very good at detecting false online reviews, and they have whole teams working on this. Don’t waste your time trying to game the system.

In the end, what does it matter if you have 100 five star reviews that are faked? What you are after is happy customers that are telling their friends about you. Fake reviews do not help with that. Engaging with your customers does. I know many businesses who don’t even need marketing campaigns because their word of mouth referrals provide so many new customers. You don’t get there by buying fake reviews.

The reason that we support so many forward facing review sites is to give a business’s customer a choice that they are familiar with and that they are used to. If they have used that particular review site before, the review that they leave for the business is more likely to “stick”.

Phil:  Let’s say someone makes a knock-off version of GetFiveStars that has the same features (but that maybe isn’t put together as nicely).  Would GetFiveStars evolve in any way to stay ahead of the curve, or is there a unique benefit you already bring to the table that you’d want to remind your users of?

Don:  My philosophy is that everything is a commodity today. We live in a truly global economy, and someone can always do it cheaper. The way to differentiate is by the experience you deliver to your customers. So that is our focus. We will keep raising the bar on the usability and effectiveness of the tool. We will keep raising the bar on the support we provide, and the knowledge and best practices that go into the product and process.

This opportunity is large enough – 26M small businesses in the US alone, 10s of millions more internationally. If we do our job of building a tool that truly provides value, and treating our customers like kings and queens then we will have plenty of customers and traction in the market.

Phil:  What changes brewing at Google, Yelp, or in the reviews space in general do you think might change the way GetFiveStars works?

Don:  That’s a very good question. It was interesting to watch how Google tried to change from the 5 stars model to the 30 point Zagat inspired scale for all businesses. Now they are changing back.

I think the core premise of the product – engaging with your customers to get their feedback and act on it – will not change based on any variations that Google, Yelp, or any other services makes.

Phil:  Is there a “core” feature of GetFiveStars that you just don’t see yourself ever changing (significantly)?

Don:  The ability to get feedback from customers and act on it. There are a lot of exciting directions I can see this product going, but one thing that I don’t think will ever change is the focus on interacting with customers and making it easy to get feedback from them and see how that is affecting your business.

Phil:  Right now, GetFiveStars is a one-offering brand.  Do you see it turning into a brand with other offerings?

Don:  I do feel like there are a lot of directions we can go with GetFiveStars. I want to keep the tool focused and effective, instead of cramming it with a ton of features and complexity. It should always be a pleasure to use, and take the minimum time and effort on the part of the business owner.

As we work with our customers, we can add new capabilities that add value. Birthday reminders, loyalty programs, and other customer interactions are certainly things we can imagine in GetFiveStars in the future.

Phil:  What are your current “listening stations” for getting feedback about GetFiveStars?

Don:  As you might imagine, we are using GetFiveStars to collect feedback from our customers. We are engaged one-on-one with them as they use the product to get their feedback and ideas. We are actively trying to solve their most pressing problems.

We also connect in with the Local Search community (look at the contributors to the Local Search Ranking Factors report) to keep on top of best practices and changes in the industry.

We’re also using a tool called Mention.com (based on a customer recommendation) to monitor certain topics on the web.

Phil:  What’s the best way for a user of GetFiveStars to contact you with technical questions or to offer feedback?

Don:  We provide personalized email support at support@GetFiveStars.com. We also have a user guide with video tutorials, FAQs and full documentation. Our developers respond to every email too.

Phil:  Putting GetFiveStars aside, what advice do you have for business owners who need more reviews?  (Like advice you gave people before you built GetFiveStars.)

Don:  Here are a few things I always recommend that a business should do:

1.  Monitor your online reviews so you know where people are leaving reviews for you, and respond to them.

2.  Put a simple and effective process in place for your office staff to ask your best customers for online reviews. This can be as simple as a clipboard with a list of names and email addresses. Collect those emails throughout the week, and then send a nice email at the end of the week to the people who visited, with a direct link to your Google+ page so they can leave you a review.

3.  Cultivate your online profiles for Google+, Yelp, and any industry specific site, and your website.

Phil:  Unrelated question: What’s a handful of books that helped you grow Expand2Web – and that you think would help anyone trying to grow a business?

Don:  I love this question. I consider reading great books an essential part of my business and life. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Referral Engine – by John Jantsch

Made to Stick – by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Decisive – by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs – by Carmine Gallo

Delivering Happiness – by Tony Hsieh

Predictably Irrational – by Dan Ariely

Seth Godin – Tribes, Purple Cow, others…

How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer

Presentation Zen – by Garr Reynolds

Resonate – by Nancy Duarte

If you want to know about a book for something – just ask me. I’ve probably read it!

Huge thanks to Don for the great insights.

If you’re serious about customer reviews, I highly recommend giving GetFiveStars a try.

(I also suggest checking out Expand2Web and following Don on Twitter.)

Any questions for Don or for me?  Leave a comment!

The Afterlives of Filtered Google+ and Yelp Reviews

There is an afterlife.

If it sounds like I’m saying that with too much confidence, it’s because I’m not talking about people.

I’m talking about reviews – specifically on Google Plus and Yelp, the two sites where it’s most important but hardest for most “local” business owners to get reviews.

What’s the big difference between those two ultra-important sites and others?  It’s that reviews don’t simply travel from the typing fingers of your customers, to your business listing, to the eyes of potential new customers.

Somewhere along the way, they can disappear because of Google’s or Yelp’s infamous review filters.

It’s possible for a review not to show up even when you know for a fact that a customer wrote one, and it’s possible for it to show up for a while but later disappear.  You name it, it can happen.

What happens to a review once the anti-spam filter mafia works it over?  Does it swim with the fishes?  Is it gagged and tied to a chair in a dingy basement, held captive until you meet certain demands?  Will it be freed?  What can you or others do to free it?

I’ve got some thoughts on those points, and so do Mike Blumenthal and Darren Shaw.

Those two guys were kind enough to share some excellent insights (as you’ll see).

 

Afterlife: Filtered Google Plus Reviews

 

You know some of your reviews have been filtered if your customers are the only ones who can see their reviews on your page.

Let’s say you asked Bob, a customer, for a review.  You know for a fact he went to the right listing, signed into his Google Plus account, and wrote you a review.  If he’s the only one who sees the review on your business page – if nobody else can see Bob’s review – then you know it’s been filtered.

If Bob signs out of his Google account, even he won’t see it on your page any longer.  Bob is in a séance with the ghost of the review, made possible by the hocus pocus that is Google Plus.

 

Where is the filtered review floating around?  Mike Blumenthal has some insight on that:

Google has not been totally transparent about their review filtering. In other words they have been totally opaque about the rules and technologies that they are using.

Reviews are kept in a separate index and not with the basic business data. This allows them to remove or move individual reviews. In the past there were also issues where some reviews were lost, misplaced or otherwise missing that didn’t involve their filter. So sometimes it was difficult to know whether they had just “misplaced” a review or had “misjudged” it.

I think most of those problems have been put behind them so at this point if they are not showing up (but do show under the author) then they are being filtered by the filtering algo.

Assuming that a review is visible under the author then if it were ever to be unfiltered by a human at Google. Google can now also move reviews from one business listing to another. These both mean that Google has obviously developed internal tools to allow support staff to this which they never had before.

[Links added by me, not by Mike.]

It’s possible for the review to come back.  It may return to your page – exactly where you and your customer wanted it to go – if Google relaxes its filtering algorithm.  This happened in January of 2013, after about 7 months of draconian filters that sent far too many innocent reviews to the gallows.  It was a great feeling to see many of my clients’ legitimate and hard-earned reviews reappear on their Google listings.

But is there anything you or your customer can do to resurrect your reviews?  I’ve never seen it done, and it doesn’t sound as though Mike thinks it’s doable:

Given that we do not know all of the parameters that cause a review to be filtered we don’t really know and can’t easily test if any given review can be unfiltered in some way. The review filter, unlike Yelp’s, seems more complicated and layered. If that is the case and Google scores multiple attributes of any given review it would seem that it would be unlikely that they could be surfaced by user activities. Possible but unlikely.

So, aside from wait and hope that Google later recognizes that your reviews were legit all along, what can you do?  I think all you can do is the following:

Ask your customers to log into their Google accounts, copy the review that they wrote, and email it to you.  (They have to log into their Plus accounts, click on the “Home” and then “Local” tabs on the left, then click the link under “Your places.”)

First study the review itself and see if you can discern anything that might have tripped the filter to begin with, and see if you can glean any insights that way.

Then copy and paste a sentence or two of the review text into Google, and see what comes up in the search results.  It may be the case that Google accidentally stuck the review onto someone else’s listing, in which case you may be able to get it moved to where it belongs.

Don’t give up.  Google reviews are never truly dead, as I’ve noticed, and as Mike explains:

Nothing at Google is ever thrown away. Not a listing, not reviews, not anything.

You can’t really even delete a listing. If Google thinks a listing should be shown that you have “deleted” in the dashboard they will show it. Only by “closing” a listing can you make it inactive.

Reviews are the same. They never go away and the system is always looking for a listing to attach them to.

However now that 1) they can unmerge listings and 2) move reviews around it is possible to get reviews off of one listing and onto another if they are there inappropriately.

 

Afterlife: Filtered Yelp Reviews

 

The “afterlife” of Yelp reviews isn’t nearly as mysterious.

They rest securely in Yelp’s “filtered reviews” section.  Like Egyptian mummies, Lenin, or poor cryogenically frozen Ted Williams, they can be seen by humans.

Yelp grants these reviews a little privacy:

Not all visitors are allowed in the mausoleum:

I’ve learned over time that reviews on Yelp get filtered out based on reviewers’ activity – or, more specifically, their inactivity – rather than on what they write.  I’ve seen Yelp both filter and allow reviews that are short, long, helpful, lousy, full of keywords, devoid of keywords – you name it.  I’ve seen helpful, appropriate reviews get filtered, and I’ve seen raunchy ones go through.

What Yelp seems to look at, above all, is how active a Yelper the reviewer is.  If your customer goes onto your listing, gives you 5 stars and a review, leaves, and isn’t already in the habit or doesn’t get in the habit of writing reviews on Yelp regularly, his or her review probably will never see the light of day.  The reviews of first-timers are marked for death.

What can you do if your reviews have been filtered?  Can you rouse them back to life?  Well, it depends on how close you are with your customers.  You can’t do it alone.  Here’s Darren Shaw’s advice

As far as I know, the key to unfiltering Yelp reviews is to engage the reviewer. Many reviews get filtered because the reviewer created an account, left a review, then didn’t use the site again. Yelp trusts reviews from its active users more than the inactive ones, so “activate” that reviewer. Friend them. Respond to their review. “Like” their review. Send them a message through Yelp. Encourage them to review other businesses on Yelp. With a bit of activity, we’ve seen reviews raise from the dead on Yelp.

One tip I’ve wanted to share is how to find people you know on Yelp. I discovered that this google search can help:

yelp “first_name last_initial.” city_name

(Try it on yourself)

Now imagine you have a database of customers, and you check them all with this search. You could put a little “flag” on their account and have your staff let them know you’re on Yelp the next time they come in.

Reviews on Yelp weave in and out of life.  As Darren says, the variable that determines whether they stay on terra firma is how active the user is.  Even if a review is unfiltered, it can get filtered again if the reviewer goes inactive for more than about 3 weeks.  I’ve personally seen it happen to reviews that I’ve  written for businesses I frequent.  Yelp reviews can die off and be resurrected more than once.  There’s not just one afterlife for them.  They can always go “poof” or rematerialize, depending mostly on whether the reviews come someone who’s part of or becoming part of Yelp’s “community.”

Pretty much all reviews benefit your business – a little or a lot.  Here’s my geeky way of thinking about their value to you:

length of time you’ve had a review X how positive the review is X your local rankings = its value to you

That’s why you need to do what you can to get reviews in the first place, and to do what you can to get them back if they ever go anywhere.  Now you have the ability to do both.

Last but not least…thanks to Mike and to Darren for their great insights!