25 Hard Truths of Google Reviews

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ikewinski/7172214803/Google reviews can help your business for obvious reasons: They’re mighty visible in the Google Maps search results, and searchers pay attention to the reviews (and sometimes believe them).  The big problem is just as obvious: Google does an awful job of policing reviews, causing all sorts of mischief and mayhem.

You’d like more and better reviews than your competitors have.  But you’ll have a harder time accomplishing that if you know as little about Google reviews as they know.  It helps to know some “inside baseball.”

Here are some hard truths of Google reviews.  Some will be old news to you.  Others will be news.  Those will help you approach Google reviews with fewer blind spots.

1. Google exercises little oversight.  The sheriff is out of town.

 

2. Google doesn’t care whether a reviewer is a real customer, or about what happens to your business as a result of bogus reviews.  You, customers, and Google all care about Google reviews for different reasons.  For Google, reviews are a way to crowdsource info about local businesses and to keep searchers’ attention on Google’s local search results as they get larded with ads.

3. Reporting a bogus review just once doesn’t work.  Sometimes flagging it down multiple times over a period of weeks or months will work.  More often, you’ll need to go to greater lengths (and Google still may not remove the review).

4. Ratings-only reviews stick more than they should.  Ratings left by Google users who’ve only rated one business are especially stubborn, because Google can’t detect fishy patterns of behavior (like that a “customer” hired 10 moving companies in 6 different states in the span of a month).

5. Google filters policy-violating reviews rarely, and they’re tough to get removed manually (if you can get them removed at all).

6. You do not own and cannot control the Google Maps reviews of your business.  Google owns them, and Google controls them – for better or for worse.

7. Google fixates on quantity.  “Local Guides” are minted and promoted on the basis of how many reviews they’ve written.  Even if those reviews are bogus, unfair, unhelpful, or paid-for (or some combination thereof).

8. There’s a black market of people who want to buy Google reviews.  One way I know that is because probably twice a week some idiot emails me to ask how many reviews I can write for him.  (Yes, it’s almost always a he.)

9. You can’t control what’s in the review snippets – the ones you see in the right-hand sidebar (the knowledge panel), or the ones in the Google Maps 3-pack.  The best you can do is encourage happy customers to speak up, often and in large numbers.

10. Photos accompanying Google reviews are just as badly policed as the reviews are.  Photos never seem to get filtered automatically.  Often they’re not removed even once you report them.

11. Reviews don’t seem to drive rankings in the way you might think.  A pile of great Google reviews doesn’t  mean you’ll rank well.  You may get a little bump from getting a few reviews on the board, but after that it seems to be a question of how your reviews encourage more searchers to click on your listing and show other signs that suggest you’re a more-relevant search result than the next business is.  The rankings benefits of Google reviews seem to be indirect.

12. Pseudonyms and initials are OK, apparently.  Google suggests reviewers use their real names, but does nothing to enforce that.

13. Reviews can get filtered, unfiltered, and re-filtered multiple times.  A good review is never “safe.”  A review doesn’t go away if you close down your Google My Business page.

14. Unethical reviewers can keep coming back with new reviews, possibly under different names or in different Google accounts.  The worst Google will do – all they can do – is remove the reviews, and even that rarely happens without your prodding.

15. There’s no simple way to embed Google reviews on your site.  But I suspect Google will eventually offer a way, similar to Yelp’s.

16. Reviewers must use their own Google accounts.  Even it’s a hassle for them and for you.  They can’t log into an account you own and use a “pen name,” nor can you post reviews on their behalf.

17. Your “star rating” may not make sense.  If you have nine 5-star reviews and one 4-star review, your average rating may not be 4.9 stars.

18. Local Guides are not held to higher standards than are less-active Google reviewers.  Their reviews don’t have to be any truer or more helpful.

19. There’s no guarantee you can keep your reviews if your address changes much.  Google’s pretty good about letting you keep your reviews if you rebrand, or if you move to a new address that’s within the same town or within a few miles of the old address.  But Google reserves the right to nuke your reviews after a farther-away move.

20. There’s no penalty on businesses that buy reviews or engage in similar crookedness.  Yelp does it all wrong, and I don’t claim that for Google to do it fairly would be an easy matter.  The trouble is Google’s lack of oversight adds to a “why not?” outlook in some business owners.  Though that usually comes back to bite those business owners when enough customers discover the good reviews were fake, first too many customers find out the hard way that those businesses are no good.

21. The rules change, and the strictness of Google’s filter changes.  Google plays with the dials often.

22. Google reviews are near-impossible to avoid, and only become more visible over time.  That’s great if you’re dialed-in on Google reviews, but not if you’ve taken a drubbing.

23. Google reviews live in the search results.  No longer can people see your reviews on your Google My Business page, which itself is a Sea-Monkey floating in the fragile little tank we call Google Maps.

24. You can’t find much information about reviewers.  You (and would-be customers) can’t get any or many facts to determine which reviews are more credible.  You can’t even see where the reviewers are from.

25. Businesses in the 3-pack are not ranked strictly by their average ratings.  A 2-star business may outrank a 5-star.  Generally the higher-rated businesses outrank the lower-rated ones, but exceptions abound.  It’s complicated.

Can you think of any other “hard truths” of Google reviews?

Any good war stories?

Any silver linings?

Leave a comment!

Want to Smear a Multi-Location Business on Yelp? Just Regurgitate Your Review

https://www.flickr.com/photos/senor_codo/211565650/

Let’s say you had a bad experience at a local business with half a dozen locations, and you feel the need to review the business.  How many bad reviews do they deserve from you?

a. One bad review on one site. You’re one customer.  You had one poor experience.  You can’t remark on their other 5 locations, but don’t plan to visit them.  You’ll pick a site where people will probably see your review, you’ll say your piece, and that will be that.

b. A few bad reviews: one on each major review site. Normally you stick to one site, but your experience was so awful you feel you’d be a Bad Samaritan by not spreading the word.  Your 3-4 bad reviews should do the trick.  You know they’ve got 5 other locations you didn’t deal with, but you can’t comment on those, and 15-20 bad reviews from one customer seems crazy (and sounds like a lot of work for you).

c.Unlimited bad reviews: you’ll write a scathing review on as many sites as you feel like, and for every location they’ve got. Who cares that you didn’t deal with their 5 other locations?  The owners should have thought of that before mistreating you so.  No such thing as a bad review they didn’t earn!  If they had 100 locations you’d be justified in writing 100-200 bad reviews.

As a reasonable person, you’d probably pick A or B.  Choice C seems excessive.  It’s also less credible: Your criticism is more believable if it’s clear you’ve stuck to the locations you’ve dealt with.  Won’t seem as much like a personal crusade to destroy the business.

Yelp doesn’t care.  Apparently, any given customer can review as many locations of your business as he or she would like, as long as each review is at least a little different.  Just regurgitate n’ reuse.

To Yelp, if you’ve got 3 locations and 1 angry customer, that customer is entitled to 3 nasty reviews.

Recently, I reported a redundant Yelp review of one of my clients, a doctor with 2 practice locations.  He’s got solid reviews: mostly good reviews, with a few bad ones.  One patient wrote a review of his main office location, and that review seemed legitimate, but then she reviewed his other location.  Admittedly she didn’t even go there.  She said, in effect, “Check out all the bad reviews of the doctor’s main location.  As I said in my review of that one, he’s terrible because…blah blah blah.”

I’ve had some success in reporting unfair and non-compliant Yelp reviews, and getting them removed.  In the past, I’ve been able to get them to remove reviews that are exact copies: a customer writes a 1-star review of one location, and does a simple copy-and-paste for the other location(s).  Yelp has always removed carbon-copies.

Why should redundant, near-duplicate reviews be any different?  Why should customers be able to “spin” the same review and reuse it against you?

They shouldn’t be able to.  I don’t know how to explain why Yelp HQ thinks that (other than by pointing out the obvious: they’re idiots).

Yelp’s review-writing guidelines (like Google’s) appear deliberately broad, so as to allow for a “know it when we see it” judgment when one party flags a review for removal.  I suspect one reason Yelp doesn’t remove redundant, near-duplicate reviews is that Yelp doesn’t know which one is the “correct” review, and doesn’t care to make a call.  For a company with a motto of “Real People, Real Reviews,” Yelp never has paid much attention to basic facts of the reviewer-business relationship, like whether the reviewer has had experience with 12 locations or 1 location or 0 locations of a business.

The other reason, I suspect, is that if Yelp lets fly more bad reviews than they should, business owners are more likely to feel the pinch and try Yelp’s advertising out of desperation.  Just a guess.

Anyway, besides reporting redundant reviews from the same customer, what should you do?  Fill out this somewhat-buried form.  Explain that you don’t dispute the reviewer’s right to review one of your locations – just not all of your locations.  Highlight any language that makes it clear the customer didn’t deal with those other locations.  Your request may still be ignored, but it’s a stone to turn over.

Also, get dialed-in on your review strategy before this kind of thing happens.

Any experience in getting redundant Yelp reviews removed?

How about getting other types of Yelp reviews removed?

No need to tell me how much you hate Yelp in general, but please do leave a comment on your experience with reporting reviews.

Q&A on BBB Customer Reviews: Not Just Another Unkempt Local Review Site

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephoto27/6391444495/Love or hate the Better Business Bureau, it’s one of the bigger sites to have dipped a couple toes in the greenish-brown pond of local business reviews.  In my experience it’s a great place to get reviews, as I’ve written.

But the current local-reviews landscape is the Wild West.  The sheriff in TripAdvisorville seems to shoot straight, but the one at Yelp Rock ain’t no Will Kane.  Meanwhile, the sheriff of Mountain View is never in town, and his one deputy managed to lock himself in the cell with the town drunk.

And those are the big sites that actually attempt quality-control of reviews.  Facebook and YellowPages?  Ha.

Like Angie’s List, BBB actually seems to try.  Not to say that no bogus reviews wind up there (bogus reviews are everywhere), but at least there’s an effort.

A higher-up at a regional BBB chapter read my post on how it’s an “underrated” review site, and sent me some info, which prompted me to ask him a few questions.  He prefers not to be named in this post, but here’s the inside scoop he gave me on BBB reviews:

 

Q: Is there an automatic filter on BBB reviews?  (Like Yelp’s or Google’s filter.)

A: No, there is no automatic filter on BBB reviews. We have BBB staff that read them, as well as ask the business if this person is a customer.

 

Q: Under what circumstances do you remove a customer’s review manually?

A: Since October 2015 (at my chapter of the BBB) 17% of our online reviews submitted to the BBB were not published. Reasons could have been that 1) BBB was not able to verify that the person writing the review was a customer, or that 2) the review contained abusive language.

 

Q: Under what special circumstances will BBB reveal the identity of an anonymous reviewer to the business owner?

A: The BBB does not post any anonymous reviews. Once the BBB receives a review it goes into a 3-day “holding tank” before we publish that gives the BBB time to email the business to verify that the review is in fact from a customer and gives the business an opportunity to respond. The BBB does protect the identity of the reviewer by not posting identifiable information. Same regarding formal complaints. We would not publish a complaint that was sent anonymously.

 

Q: Do formal complaints factor into the “star” rating of a business, and not just against its “letter” grade?

A: No, formal complaints do not factor into the star rating. Currently we have 2 separate grading systems. The A+ – F grading system is based on standards the business meets and has earned. The star rating system is based on consumers’ opinions of the business.

Q: To get reviews on BBB, first you need to get listed.  You can pay to get accredited, of course, but then there’s the free submission option (which has been relocated at least once, and never has been easy to find).  Why is that form so buried and, seemingly, so ineffective?

A: We have had a massive problem with citation building services who white-label their product to agencies submitting inaccurate data – either by accident or maliciously to attempt to damage a competitor’s listing. This has created a massive amount of work for our staff. Often they submit data we already have listed. If we get a listing that we think is submitted inaccurately, we try to reach out to the business by phone and later by letter and send them a questionnaire asking them to update their file in our system (free of charge). We don’t always get return phone calls or get our questionnaires returned. If we think the data is submitted inaccurately, we don’t publish it.

We are also getting a lot of submissions that have virtual office addresses that we can’t verify have employees in the United States. The business can’t be verified in public records of the state or county.

What I really think makes our database so great is that we have humans who act as “Curators” or caretakers to verify that the information that we report to the public is correct. We take this very seriously at our chapter of the BBB. It is what we dedicate the most financial and human resources to, especially regarding our Accredited Business Directory. Those businesses and their owners have been background-checked, and we’ve checked their licenses, business start dates, verified addresses, etc. That is why you won’t find an un-licensed mover in our Accredited Business Directory, or an unlicensed handyman lumped into the licensed plumbing categories.

Another thing that I think really sets us apart from other directory sites is that we ask for sizing information from the company.  For example, we know AT&T would be considered a “colossal large” business because of the number of customers they have.  It would be acceptable for them to get 500 complaints a year and, as long as they respond and make a good-faith effort to resolve those complaints, they could still maintain an A+ record.  Contrast that with a pool builder who builds 20 pools a year and gets 10 complaints. To us, that’s less expected and more of a concern.

Anyway, we are in the process of making some major improvements to our website and iPhone app. We are moving in the right direction digitally, just moving slower than I would wish! 🙂

How does that square with your experience with Better Business Bureau reviews?

Any questions I can pass on to someone at the BBB?

Leave a comment!

Do You Really Need to Clean up That Local Citation?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/donwest48/27214819893/

Local SEOs excel at nitpicking, trading in superstitions, and billing for busywork.  Nowhere is that more true than when it’s time to clean up local citations.

You’ve got dozens (or hundreds) of local listings online, and not all of them have the correct business info.  You’ve heard it’s important to have correct and consistent info on those listings.

Do you have to take the time to fix all of them – or do you need to pay someone else to?

No.  Not all local listings matter.  Having the cleanest listings doesn’t mean you’ll outrank anyone or get any more customers.

The danger of going overboard on your listings is that you feel burned-out after doing a bunch of work that doesn’t matter, and don’t have the time or the energy or the will to do the steps that do matter.

When should you bother to correct or to remove a business listing on a given site?  If you answer yes to any of the following questions, go ahead and clean up the listing.  (Skip it if you can answer no to all of the following.)

1. Do you see the listing on the first page (or first couple of pages) of Google’s results when you search for your business by name?
If the incorrect or duplicate listing shows up prominently for a brand-name search, fix it or remove it.

2.  Do you see the site on the first page of Google’s results for a search term you want to rank for?
Maybe your incorrect YellowPages listing (for example) doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but if YellowPages.com ranks for a local search term you care about, it’s worth bothering with your listing(s) there.

3.  Is it on InfoGroup, LocalEze, Acxiom, or Factual?
Google and other sites in the local-search ecosystem trust these four sites – known as “data aggregators” – as sources of accurate business info.  Make sure your listings there are accurate.

4.  Is it on a government site?
It’s likely that Google Maps and the data-aggregators (see point #3) trust the business info on government sites (e.g. State Secretary of State).  It may be a pain, but make sure your “official” record is accurate.

5.  Have you heard of the site?
If so, I’d fix it.  Unless it’s Yahoo.  Yahoo is for the birds.

6.  Do you have reviews on another listing on the site, or plan to ask for reviews on the site?
You don’t want customers to review the wrong listing.

7.  Has a customer ever seemed confused by info that’s on the listing?
Easily the best reason to fix or remove an incorrect listing.

8.  Is it clear that you can update the listing with relative ease, and for free?
If it’s controlled by Yext or otherwise requires you to pay to make any changes, I would say it’s not important to fix or to remove.

But let’s say it’s a free listing, and you can fix it or remove it easily if you want to.  Should you?  If it passes the other 7 tests I’ve described, I wouldn’t say you need to – at least not for citation-consistency purposes.  Do it if it’s just gnawing at you, and if fixing one won’t cause your OCD to flare up and compel you to fix 100 other rinky-dink listings.

Do you have a local listing you’re not sure whether to clean up?

Can you think of criteria for deciding when to bother with a listing vs. when to skip it?

Leave a comment!

20+ Depressing Observations about Yelp Reviews

https://www.flickr.com/photos/blackzack00/9985685503

I’ve seen Yelp from many angles: as a local SEO-er, as a local-reviews madman, as a consumer, as a two-year “Elite” reviewer, as a concerned citizen, and as a business owner.

That means I’ve got a love like-hate relationship with Yelp reviews.

It’s a nice feeling every time a client of mine gets a hard-earned review there.  Also, I pay some attention to Yelp reviews when I’m debating where to take my open wallet.

On the other hand, Yelp is infuriating for most business owners.  From the misleading (at best) ad-sales tactics, to the aggressive review filter, to the absurd policy that says you can’t even ask for a review, Yelp’s about as likeable as Genghis Khan.

Those issues are just the beginning.  I can think of at least 20 difficulties with Yelp reviews you’ll have to navigate.  You might have learned about some of them the hard way already.  Now you can find out about the rest.

This isn’t just a mope-fest.  You’ll learn a thing or two about how Yelp handles your reviews, and once I’ve laid out all the problems (that come to mind) you’ll probably think of ways to improve your reviews strategy.

Well-known problems

1.  Yelp filters reviews – and often does a poor job of it.

2.  You aren’t supposed to ask for Yelp reviews.

3.  Reviews are the main factor for your rankings within Yelp, and Yelp’s category pages often dominate Google’s search results.

4.  There’s a good chance a negative review will be visible on the first page of your brand-name search results, especially if the reviewer mentions your company by name.

5.  Yelp doesn’t make its policies apparent enough. Its “don’t ask for reviews” policy should be impossible for business owners to miss.  That it filters most reviews by first-timers and other new reviewers should be obvious to would-be reviewers before they write anything.

6.  As soon as you get even one Yelp review you’ll start getting sales calls, pressuring you to pay for ads. (I wouldn’t suggest you bite.)

7.  Yelp is hard to avoid on the Coasts (especially on the West Coast). In certain cities – like San Francisco, Portland, and NYC – you’re probably behind a lot of local competitors if you don’t have at least a few reviews there.

Little-known problems

8.  Yelp feeds reviews to Apple Maps, Bing Places, and Yahoo Local. Your bad reviews can show up on those 3 major local search engines (and beyond).

9.  It usually takes 10-15 reviews before a Yelp reviewer is “trusted” and his/her reviews are no longer filtered often or at all. It’s not practical to ask your reviewers to make a habit of Yelping, so as to reach that number of reviews .  That’s why the name of the game is to identify any customers / clients/ patients who are already active on Yelp, and to let it be known that you’re on Yelp and like feedback (wink, wink).

10.  Yelp reviews can get filtered and unfiltered multiple times. It depends on whether the reviewer goes inactive for more than a couple of weeks.  But this problem seems to go away once a reviewer has written about 15-20 reviews over a period of around 3 months.

11.  Even some “approved” reviews can become collateral damage if later you get too many reviews that do get filtered.For example, let’s say you have 4 reviews.  2 of them were written by very active Yelpers (maybe “Elites”) and are safe.  The other 2 were written by people with a handful of reviews each, and those reviews live happily on your page for a few months.

Now you put on your Icarus wings and ask half a dozen people who’ve never written a review on Yelp to review you.  Their reviews show up on your page for a couple of days before going into the grinder – and 2 of your reviews written by sometime Yelpers get filtered, too.  The only reviews that remain are the ones written by hardcore Yelpers.

12.  Negative reviews appear somewhat more likely to stick.

13.  The first review of a business is somewhat more likely to stick.

14.  If your business’s first review on Yelp is negative it’s probably going to stick.

15.  Reviews written by people with many “friends” are somewhat more likely to stick. It’s very easy to rack up “friends” on Yelp, so if you have a ticked-off customer with many “friends” you may have a problem.

16.  Content has almost no bearing on whether a review gets filtered. It’s mostly about how active the reviewer is / has been.  Swearing (as long as it’s not name-calling) is usually allowed.  Also, the mischievous elves who man Yelp’s review filter seem entertained by the kinds of reviews that could have been ghostwritten by Jack Nicholson.

17.  Reviews that you “flag” are very hard to get removed unless the text of the review is ad hominem or un-PC. The truthfulness of the review or credibility of reviewer doesn’t matter much to Yelp.

18.  If your business moves to a new location Yelp probably won’t transfer your reviews.

19.  Yelp reviews won’t show up in your knowledge graph.

20.  You’re at a disadvantage if you can’t or don’t want to offer a Yelp check-in offer. Why?  Because if you do a check-in offer Yelp will ask your customers to write reviews.  Pretty hypocritical, as I’ve argued.

21.  Yelp has been pushing the “not recommended” reviews farther and farther out of sight. You click the link to see “reviews that are not currently recommended,” you’re shown two filtered reviews, and then you have to scroll down and click another gray link that says, “Continue reading other reviews that are not currently recommended.”  How many customers will do that?  Oy.

22.  Who becomes an “Elite” reviewer is arbitrary. It partly depends on whether your reviews get “voted” on, and whether you’ve written any “Reviews of the Day.”

But it seems to depend above all on whether your region’s “Community Manager” sees your reviews and likes them.

23.  Only the first couple of lines of business owners’ responses will show up, unless readers click the small “Read more” link. Bad reviews will show in their Tolstoyan entirety, but you’ve got to say something compelling in haiku space, or else the would-be customer never sees your side of the story.

Don’t you feel better now?  No?  Time for a cat picture – and not just of any cat:

Now that we’re both in a happier place, let’s take up a weighty question:

Given the massive PITA factor, why on earth should you still pay any attention to Yelp?

Because the reviews get lots of eyeballs, and because Yelp is splattered across Google’s local results

What can you do?

Ask most or all of your customers for reviews, and give them choices (including easier sites).  Some of those people will be Yelpers.

Link to your Yelp reviews – or just your page – on your website and in your email signature.

Identify already-active Yelpers and send them mind-waves.

Diversify where you get reviews.

Keep making customers happy.

Any observations on Yelp reviews?

Any strategy suggestions?

Leave a comment!